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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Israel and Gaza: 1) (A bit of) History

Had I been able to talk directly to men, women and children in Israel and Gaza, this piece would certainly have been different (or, arguably, would not exist). Instead of it, I would have created a piece of reportage, with under- and over-currents of what follows here.

I did and do not have such access. As a result, this piece is pure analysis – the first section historical, the second regarding Hamas' attack, and the third about what should happen next. 

To read this piece in full, click here

To read Part Two, 8 October 2023: What should have happened, click here

To read Part Three, What should happen next, click here

Israel and Gaza

There really is no single military activity right now which has killed so many people in such a short time, or is so clearly an act of aggression by a powerful country against a far smaller neighbour, than the Israeli government's ongoing attack against Gazan people.

Considering Russia is also invading Ukraine as we speak and has been since 2022, this is quite an achievement.

I'm going to be as clear as possible. Despite what the Israeli government would like to pretend, and despite its backing in this by a lot of supporters, including some who should, and many who absolutely do, know better, there is absolutely nothing 'anti-Semitic' about opposing specific policies and actions carried out by the Israeli government.

There are three very simple reasons for this. The first is that despite its claims to the contrary, the Israeli government is not the representative, or the protector, of all Jewish people. A criticism of it is not a criticism of Jewish people, or Judaism.

The second is that the Israeli government is not even a particularly good representative of all Israeli people, let alone all of the world's Jewish people. 'Anti-Israel' is not – by definition, at least – anti-Semitism, but even if it were, the Israeli government is not 'the Israeli people', or the country of Israel.

And the third is that criticism of a government's policies is not even the same as criticism of the Israeli government.

It is quite tiresome to have to set this out here, but I am doing so in order that no-one need waste any further time on this.

Further to this, I would like to state clearly and for the record that I am in no way an anti-Semite. I harbour zero negative feelings about, or towards, Jewish people on the grounds of their Jewishness, and while I certainly regard the entire issue of Israel's nationhood as far more complex than the Israeli government does, so, to put it simply, do most Jewish people I have ever met. Including some from Israel.

And just to tick all the boxes, I have consistently spoken, and written, about civilian massacres wherever they have happened, for the last 12 years. I have, to the extent I have made a career of anything at all, made a career of it. Once again, if anyone reads this and intends to make any claim that I have not done so, it will save us all a great deal of time, and you a great deal of embarrassment, if you simply do not do so.

1)     (A bit of) History

Of course, we're going to talk about the attack on Gaza by the Israeli government (though in fact this will not be the main focus of this piece, as the headline suggests), in which so far 30,717 men, women and children have been killed (at Wednesday 6 March 2024), almost none of them Hamas members or fighters.

But before we do, it might be worth making a historical note. One particular historical note.

Because since the Israeli government launched its attack on Gaza, under claims that it was seeking to find and destroy Hamas (a goal it has noticeably, almost five months and more than 30,000 deaths later, signally failed to achieve), a cliched myth has resurfaced: that there never was a 'Palestine', so any claims that Palestinian people may be justified in being unhappy that Israel was formed on their land, and that since then successive Israeli governments have illegally seized yet more land from Palestinian people living outside the mandated area of the Israeli state, must be false.

The claims have never been true, and in the latest iteration are, if anything, even less so.

Because those posting this falsehood have this time chosen to illustrate it with a map claiming to be of The Empire of David and Solomon 1000-925BC (the map was made before the use of 'Common Era', and hence 'B(efore the)CE' became standard, although, as we shall see, also significantly later than the period it claims to represent).

The problem with the map is… well, in this context, almost everything.

Let's begin at the beginning. Almost every historian on Earth accepts that either King David did exist, or that he was at least based on a historical figure. The evidence we have so far is not entirely conclusive to all, and an awful lot of it takes the form of kings hundreds of years later claiming descent from 'David', which is hardly 'primary evidence', but at least points to the former, and even those not fully convinced accept the latter.

Whether he ever had an empire of any description is less clear, and whether it covered the amount of land in this map less so than that (the point being that most historians are certain that David {from now on we will cease to add 'or whoever he was based on', which is in any case a minority and diminishing view} ruled Israel, most accept he also ruled Judah – this could conceivably be called an 'empire' in and of itself: any 'empire' greater than that is backed by very little written and even less material evidence. This is not to say such an empire never existed: new relics and artefacts are discovered almost every month. It is just to note that among many problems with this map – let alone with the claims made by those using it – is that it is not strongly backed by any written or material evidence).

Strongly connected to the geographical uncertainty point is that this map was made almost 3,000 (2,910) years after the start of the 'empire' it claims to depict. No such map could have been made during the period of the 'empire', and no map of any kind showing it has ever been found.

One point certainly worth noting is that even on this map, showing an 'empire' we are not certain existed, and of a size about which we are even less certain, there are two regions certainly not within the 'empire': 'Phoenicia' and 'Philistja'. These names, along with the names of the people who lived there: Phoenicians, Philistines and Palaistinians, are first known to have been written by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE (as a note, Herodotus does not mention either David or Solomon at all).

They are all names used by Greek people for Canaanites, which the Bible itself notes is the name used by the people who lived in modern Israel and Palestine, before the Jewish people arrived.

And on that note, it's worth looking a little at the Jewish national myth.

We are not here to talk about whether what Jewish people (or any other religious group) believe theologically is true. But in relation to this map, and the claims made by people who wish to present it as 'proof' the Jewish people were the 'original (and sole) inhabitants of Israel', the Jewish story of the beginning of the Jewish race, and of the land Jewish people inhabited, does bear some scrutiny.

Because the story Jewish people told, in the Bible (a book which was extensively rewritten and edited around the year 500BCE, which we shall come to soon), was that Abraham, a man who lived in Sumer, 'met God' in around 3000BCE, and was told by him, amongst other things, to leave his home and travel to Israel, which God 'promised to him'. Israel, therefore, was the 'chosen' and the 'promised' land.

In this story, there is no pretence that the Jewish people already lived in Israel, or indeed anywhere else. Instead, the claim is that Abraham, the first Jew, travelled to Israel from elsewhere, arriving where other people – the Canaanites (who are literally the people named Palestinian in the first documented use of the term) – already lived, and settled there because God told them they could.

It's not a story of 'the only people ever to have lived here' and to be fair to the Jewish people of 500BCE and before, it makes no pretence of being so.

Now in fact, the evidence we do have – particularly DNA evidence – strongly suggests, as do many rabbis, that the story is of course not historically accurate. It seems to indicate that the Jews are basically identical to the people who lived and live in the same area as ancient Israel: it appears they all, Canaanites and Jewish people alike, are from the same place, most likely precisely where they lived.

(though it is interesting to note here that many of the myths surrounding the Jewish faith, from the means of creation and Yahweh fighting Leviathan, to Noah and several other Jewish stories, seem to be heavily 'influenced by' and in some cases directly lifted from, Sumerian and Akkadian myths: in some cases it is clear that certain words which had two meanings in Sumerian or Akkadian have been mistranslated in the Jewish stories)

This all poses three major problems for people who wish to claim that 'the state of Palestine never existed' (even though a very small version of it, in two sections, literally appears on the map) and 'Palestinian people never lived in what is now Israel'.

The first is that the Jewish mythological account freely accepts that Jewish people are not 'from' Israel – at least were not native to it (of course, 5,000 years is long enough to stake a claim to a place being 'home') – and that people, the Canaanites, known to the Greeks as Palaistinians, already lived there.

The sole claim the myth really makes to the land is that God promised it (even then, it is far from clear how much of it God 'promised' – the map shows an empire which may never have existed and which certainly includes land which is neither Israel or Judah) to Abraham, who then left his home in Sumer in 3,000BCE, to found the Jewish race.

The second problem is that the actual evidence we have seems to completely disprove this story, and to their credit, Jewish religious leaders accept this fact (it would be helpful if Christian religious leaders, with a few honourable exceptions, could be so willing to accept scientific evidence which contradicts Biblical stories or their interpretations).

It shows that the people who would later become Jewish and Canaanite rose, or (however many tens of thousands of years before) settled in what would become Israel and Palestine together: they were the same people.

There was no 'Jewish only' period in the history of the so-called 'Holy Land'.

Not only does this prove that from a sheer 'who was here first' perspective, the Palestinian people have at least as much right to live in the region as Jewish people do, it also effectively wipes out the idea of a 'promised land': because the Abraham myth relies on the conceit that God has found a place for Jewish people, who he will father, to live, that 'Israel' was promised to the Jews by God, and that Abraham must leave his home to found this new land. If this is, as the evidence strongly suggests, merely a myth, then not only were the Jewish people not 'there first', but no-one actually promised those people anything. Not one piece of the land.

The next serious problem with this 'map' being used as evidence – apart from its immense age, the fact that it absolutely shows Palestinian people resident in the region at the period of the claimed 'empire of David', and that it is backed by virtually zero material or written evidence – is that what it portrays is an empire.

That is, land conquered by 'David' and then ruled by 'Solomon'. What this proves is not that Jewish people 'always lived in all of this region' but that before 1,000BCE, Jewish people absolutely did not live in much of it, and that someone else – the conquered people – did. Even in this map, the fact is clear: the Canaanites, literally named on the map, were here when this empire existed.

We must also note that the map shows an empire which even by the map's own claim, existed for just 75 years. Out of a total of 3,000, if the map marks the start of Jewish history (which it makes absolutely no claim to), 5,000 if the Abraham myth were true, and tens of thousands if, as the evidence suggests, Jewish (before they were in fact Jewish) and Canaanite (ditto)/Palestinian people were on the land, together, long, long before.

So it's an empire which existed for 1.5 per cent of the history claimed by the Jewish myth cycle, and likely much less than 0.375 per cent of the time people who became Jewish and Canaanites/Palestinians have actually lived there.

And then it ended. It ceased to exist. Israel and Judah again became the 'home of Jewish people' and the empire, if it had ever existed, ceased to be.

There's one further point that it's quite important to make in relation to this map, and the history of the region and people it claims to represent.

And that's that as mentioned earlier, the Jewish myth cycle: the Torah, and associated later stories – was effectively rewritten in the fifth century BCE.

Because the Jewish people were in 722BCE scattered across the Assyrian Empire by the latter's conquering armies (such scattering was a common tactic by the Assyrian rulers, who believed – with some evidence – that it helped suppress nationalistic resistance and revolts) and were not able to return until the Achaemenid (Persian) Emperor Cyrus the Great defeated the Assyrians in 538BCE, when Jewish people returned to Israel and built the Second Temple (this is why Cyrus is given such a glowing write-up in, for example, Ezra).

All historical evidence we have shows – overwhelmingly – that prior to the 722BCE scattering, the religion of Jewish people bore almost no relation to that of the present day. It is clear that Jewish people worshipped a multitude of gods and goddesses, as was common across the Middle East (and far beyond) at that time. There is a massive amount of fascinating and in some cases quite disturbing evidence for this, and anyone interested can ask questions here or look up Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou on YouTube or other services.

The point is, having experienced devastation at foreign hands, the scattered Jewish people gradually came to believe that they had been defeated not because – as was the common train of thought at the time – their god or gods had been 'weaker' than the deities of their vanquisher, but that they had paid too little attention to the god they believed was head of their pantheon.

In response, they launched an entire restructure, wiping from their myth cycle almost completely the goddess Asherah, now believed to have been Yahweh's wife in the original cycle, and many others, while 'converting' others to angels, leaving only Yahweh as 'God', and several hints of earlier stories and deities in their place.

I find this side of Jewish and indeed South-West Asian history fascinating: many of the strongest stories of western culture come from this region from around 3,500BCE onwards. And none of this is an effort to denigrate Jewish people or Judaism in any way. Their stories and legends are interesting, and their response to a major military and popular catastrophe was understandable and inventive. But it was also a complete change in their entire belief system.

The religion practiced by 'Jewish' people when the 'empire of David' existed, if it ever did, and certainly in Israel and Judah for centuries – arguably thousands of years – before that, and for around 400 years after, bore basically zero resemblance to that which exists today.

I want to stress, not one word of this should be interpreted by any reader as an effort to undermine Jewish people's right to claim a (much smaller than the modern state of Israel) part of the region as an ancestral homeland.

The point is not 'Jewish people do not belong there and never lived there'. Arguably they do, and certainly they did. It is that Palestinian people, despite the outright falsehoods spread almost since the creation of the modern Israeli state, and in conjunction with this map since 8 October 2023, absolutely do and certainly always have.

A lie is a lie, regardless of who tells it, and no-one benefits if we pass lies off as genuine history.

A final word, because it is regularly raised. No state named 'Palestine' existed at the time the Israel mandate was drafted.

This is true. But it is far less 'meaningful' than those who deny Palestinian people a home or even a right to one, hope. Because neither did Kenya, Nigeria, or many other states, during the British Empire. Greece had never existed as a unified state prior to 1822. Germany had not before 1861, Italy before 1871. Türkiye never existed until the end of the Ottoman Empire.

No-one on Earth suggests this means these states do not exist, or that their people have no common history or culture, far less that the people within them are somehow 'not Turkish', 'not Greek', or 'not Italian'.

To read this piece in full, click here

To read Part Two, 8 October 2023: What should have happened, click here

To read Part Three, What should happen next, click here



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