The “Philistine-Palestinian” debate has been brought to the forefront again, this time by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Seemingly triggered — along with the rest of Twitter — by Linda Sarsour’s comments that “Jesus was Palestinian,” Netanyahu took to the social media platform to highlight what he said was proof that Palestinians were not as connected to the land of Israel and Palestine as Jews are.
Linking to a new Israeli study of DNA collected from an ancient Philistine site in the Ashkelon coastal region, Netanyahu said the study “confirms what we know from the Bible – that the origin of the Philistines is in southern Europe.”
A new study of DNA recovered from an ancient Philistine site in the Israeli city of Ashkelon confirms what we know from the Bible – that the origin of the Philistines is in southern Europe. https://t.co/bwmcPax9Jp
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) July 7, 2019
Netanyahu went on to reference the Biblical mention of a place called Caphtor, thought to be modern-day Crete, where the Philistines allegedly migrated from before arriving in Palestine.
He went on: “There’s no connection between the ancient Philistines & the modern Palestinians, whose ancestors came from the Arabian Peninsula to the Land of Israel thousands of years later.”
“The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000 year connection that the Jewish people have with the land,” the premiere concluded.
Palestinian activists and supporters were quick to tear down Netanyahu’s comments which they said were setting a dangerous precedent for the denial of Palestinian human rights.
Ali Abunimah, journalist and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada news website called Netanyahu’s comments a “warning sign of genocide.”
This racial eugenics should be seen as laying the ground for justifying the expulsion of the Palestinian people. It’s a warning sign of genocide. But remember these are the #SharedValues of @EUinIsrael. https://t.co/Oe6m54BDWg
— Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) July 7, 2019
“This racial eugenics should be seen as laying the ground for justifying the expulsion of the Palestinian people. It’s a warning sign of genocide. But remember these are the #SharedValues of @EUinIsrael,” he tweeted.
Palestinian-American writer and political analyst Yousef Munayyer also took to Twitter to call out Netanyahu for his comments, noting that the premier’s father changed their family’s surname to Netanyahu from Mileikowsky, “which means from Milikow, a village in Poland.”
Here's the thing, Jews as well as Palestinian Muslims & Christians and countless other peoples have a connection to the land. Zionism demands a hierarchy making Jewish connection supreme to legitimize itself. Problem isn't history but misuse of it to deny human rights.
— (((YousefMunayyer))) (@YousefMunayyer) July 8, 2019
“Here’s the thing, Jews as well as Palestinian Muslims & Christians and countless other peoples have a connection to the land. Zionism demands a hierarchy making Jewish connection supreme to legitimize itself. Problem isn’t history but misuse of it to deny human rights,” Munayyer continued.
The Philistine trope
For years Israeli leaders, lawmakers, and their supporters have employed a series of tactics in the media and on the international stage to discredit Palestinian claims to their homeland, or “prove” superior Jewish claims to the land.
From arguing in Israeli parliament that the letter ‘p’ does not exist in the Arabic language thus proving Palestine does not exist, to presenting at the UN replicas of ancient coins allegedly found at the Jewish Temple Mount in Jerusalem centuries ago — it’s all been tried before.
One of the tropes that makes its way into the discourse on the conflict every so often is the debate of the Philistines and their relation to present day Palestinians. Coincidentally, it happens to also be a favorite talking point of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s son.
Known for their biblical conflict with the Israelites, the Philistines are an ancient people believed to have arrived in the region in the 12th century BC, ruling over what is present day central and southern Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The word Palestine is believed to be derived from ‘Philistia’, the name used by ancient Greeks to refer to the land occupied by the Philistines. The term was later revived by the Romans, who renamed the land ‘Syria Palaestina’, and was eventually adopted by Arabs in the early Islamic era into the name ‘Falastin’, which is still used today.
In spite of Israeli attempts to establish a connection between Palestinians and the Philistines — to further the narrative that Palestinians have a lesser connection to the land than the Jewish people — the Palestinian people have rejected this narrative, instead pointing to their continuous inhabitation of the land for centuries.
As Palestinian writer and activist Omar Ghraeib put it: “I don’t care how many articles try to dis Palestinians or cliam we are of different discent. We were here, we didn’t come & occupy any body’s land or home. And we are here to stay.”
— Omar Ghraieb🇵🇸 (@Omar_Gaza) July 8, 2019
‘Muddled and problematic claims’
While most of the reactions towards Netanyahu’s comments criticized Israel’s use of archeology to justify their actions against Palestinians, some archaeologist experts took to Twitter to point to the fact that, in their opinion, the study itself and the media portrayal of it were terribly misleading.
Archaeologist and professor at the University College London (UCL) Dr. David Wengrow linked to the study in a tweet, saying “There’s so much wrong here I almost don’t know where to start.”
There's so much wrong here I almost don't know where to start. In antiquity the Eastern Mediterranean was a place of constant mixture, not bounded groups of "Europeans" and "Levantines" occasionally linked by "admixture" – that is just what we made of it.https://t.co/JOi4NcYUPc
— David Wengrow (@davidwengrow) July 3, 2019
Wengrow went on to highlight the problem with referring to ancient populations within the confines of modern day geographic references, like “southern Europe,” given that ancient civilizations were not so tightly bounded by borders as populations are today.
“In antiquity the Eastern Mediterranean was a place of constant mixture, not bounded groups of “Europeans” and “Levantines” occasionally linked by “admixture” – that is just what we made of it,” Wengrow said.
He called the study a “clear-cut case where modern genetic studies are being (mis)used to revive outdated arguments about ancient migrations that have their origin in racial theory.”
In a separate series of tweets, archaeologist and writer Michael Press pointed out that the study, which presented as “definitive conclusions and sweeping statements” were based only on the DNA of a total of 10 ancient individuals.
“When you read the study, you see that the news stories bury or ignore what might be the most interesting thing: *most* of the DNA of *all 3 groups*, including the supposed early Iron Age immigrants, is said to be “local”!” Press tweeted.
He noted that such conclusive interpretations of the study should not have been made without a significantly larger sample.
“The point is this: far from letting the ancients “speak for themselves”, the DNA only show a Greek or southern European origin b/c it’s interpreted in the light of a century of Philistine research that suggested that!” he said.