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Palestine: The History of a People

The world recently concluded a religious season when millions of people celebrate the birth of Palestine’s most famous son. It is also the season when the fact of Palestine is further denied; denied both by some of those who worship him and by some of those who deny his divinity. While it is not the intention of this review to discuss matters of religious belief, the truth is that the history of Palestine and its people is wrapped up in religious beliefs. Those beliefs are used by many factions to both prove and deny Palestine as a historical reality. Over time, the discussion regarding that history has been dominated by those who pretend that Palestine was a land without a people. It is these same forces that use this denial to justify the continuing expansion of their occupation of Palestinian lands.

Without an acknowledged history, whole nations and peoples can be erased from human memory. Most invaders understand this dynamic and all too often determine that the best way to keep lands they have taken is to erase the history of those who lived there when they invaded. All too often, this erasure of the indigenous history and culture is accompanied by mass murder. The most egregious examples of this latter manifestation most often involve Europeans committing genocide in the Americas and Africa. In the case of Palestine, the mass murder was on a lesser scale, but the wholesale removal of the inhabitants of Palestine by Zionist/European colonizers in what is known as the Nakba was nearly complete.

Recently, Zed Books Press published what is perhaps the most comprehensive and complete history of the Palestinian people to date. Titled Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History, the text traces the Palestinian people and their culture from pre-biblical times to the modern day. Author Nur Masalha has composed a narrative befitting a people whose future is ultimately crucial to the world’s. Describing most historical narratives about nations as myths based on religions and folk tales, Masalha rejects this approach and takes the reader through a detailed examination of trade, governance, and various inhabitants’ personal documents. In doing so he describes a history of a people and a place that began long before more traditional histories of either Palestine or Israel start. The result is a history based in verifiable data and unadorned by romantic notions of nationalism and religious mythology.

Furthermore, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History challenges and broadens most conventional narratives that primarily highlight the role of the elites in recent Palestinian history. In other words, the text brings the role of the villagers, farmers and everyday working folk into the discussion. In a general way, this means it is a people’s history.

The author begins his text with a discussion of the peoples in the region historically called Palestine. It is a description based on archaeological finds and interpretations that places different peoples coming together in what ultimate describes the historic beginnings of the Palestinians. Originally a polytheistic people, over time the Palestinians were (after the early polytheistic phase of prehistory), first predominantly Christian, then Muslim. Palestinian Christianity was part of the Byzantine rite and, like most churches under the eastern synod, fairly independent. It was during this predominantly Christian period that much of what we consider Palestine was politically organized and structured.

Naturally, the role of religion is important throughout the history delineated in this text. However, this is not unlike histories of much of the world. It is apparent from the reading that the wars waged over the lands that are Palestine have been sold to those invaders and occupiers as religious wars, even if they were primarily about land and conquest. This remains the case even as the text finally reaches the twentieth century and the actions of the Zionist movement to settle the land known as Palestine and remake it into Israel. When discussing this part of history, author Masalha portrays the role played by the Zionist movement not so much as a unique movement but as part of the ongoing European colonization of Palestine (and the world). In describing this, Masalha enumerates the multiple ways the Zionist occupation involved numerous British government and private endeavors –including cartographers, military members and diplomats—in their endeavor to erase Palestinian history and culture.

Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History is the most comprehensive English language history of Palestine to date. This book is a painstakingly researched and well-documented deconstruction of the myths too many Zionists and their western apologists have convinced the world to be factual history. In this careful reconstruction of Palestinian cultural and economic history on the land historically known as Palestine, Nur Masalha has provided a resounding renunciation of the modern Western understanding of Palestinian history. His work undertakes a tremendous and important task and succeeds—four thousand years of history cannot be denied. This book is an important work in its own right. In the politics of the times, it also becomes an important tool in the struggle of the Palestinian people.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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