Yes, Mr. DeSantis, Palestinians are indigenous, descended from the Canaanites, and Palestinian identity is not new

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  April 30, 2023  &  May 4, 2023 

PART I  (April 30, 2023)

Ann Arbor  – What does it mean to say that there “has never been a Palestinian state” in the Holy Land? This is one of the allegations Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made on his trip to Israel, where he fell all over himself taking far right wing colonialist stances. DeSantis actually did a history degree at Yale University and his professors must spit up a little bit when they hear him talking like that. Or just hear him talking.

Ron DeSantis is an Italian-America and all of his great grandparents were born in southern Italy. You could also say that there “had never been an Italian state in Italy” until the 1860s. The Roman Empire doesn’t count since it wasn’t Italian-speaking. If you want to count it, then we have to count the Canaanite Empire of 3000 – 1550 BCE as the first Palestinian state. Both today’s Palestinians and many Jews are descended from the Canaanites, but the latter were not Jewish in religion. Archeology doesn’t find signs of what we would now call Judaism until about 200 BCE.

So about southern Italians. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, what is now Italy was divided into several mini-states and some of it was ruled by empires. Southern Italy, from whence DeSantis hailed, was ruled by the Byzantines, by the Muslim Arabs, by the Normans, by Aragon in Spain, by the Spanish Habsburgs and then Bourbons, and by France.

Here is what “Italy” looked like in 1810 :


So like the southern Italians, the Palestinians lived under empires. First the Byzantine, which had three provinces called Palestine. Then the Muslim empires — the Commanders of the Faithful, the Umayyads,the Abbasids, the Crusaders, the Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottomans. But empires are layered. Sometimes groups can be relatively autonomous and still pro forma be under imperial rule.

Universe in Universes correctly notes, “Prior to the emergence of statehood in its modern conception, Palestine saw the formation of political entities that were quasi-independent from the Ottoman state. These entities played a significant role in guiding the construction of the urban centres that would become Palestine’s coastal cities.”

Although the rulers of Palestine (that’s what local people called it) were supposedly Ottoman governors, they were actually more like semi-autonomous rulers in the 1700s, when the Ottomans decentralized.

Universe in Universes says, “Daher al-Omar grasped the importance of the coast and made Akka (Acre) his capital in 1748. His rule lasted six decades, during which he consolidated his authority despite Ottoman rule. This authority had a significant impact on the formation and development of his power as well as on the policies concerning fellahin, Bedouins, and various religious groups in northern Palestine. His rule saw the construction of coastal towns and the restructuring of the country’s interior. This laid a solid foundation for cities’ prosperity and the creation of an economic powerhouse reliant upon agriculture and foreign trade, especially cotton.”

So there, Governor DeSantis, is your Palestinians ruling Palestine. Daher was not a mere Ottoman lackey. Indeed, at one point the Ottoman officials in Damascus invaded Palestine to get rid of him, and he fought them off.

Of course, “Palestinians” is a modern political identity with a genealogy that goes back to the reign of al-Omar. But so, too, is the Israeli political identity modern. It had not existed before the mid-20th century and is unconnected to ancient kingdoms. And “Italians” are a modern invention, of people like Garibaldi, too. The 19th and 20th century saw a vast reorganization of the world away from empires and toward nation-states with national identities.

The 1939 British White Paper of colonial Palestine scheduled the Palestinians to be an independent state by 1949, just like the Syrians and Iraqis. It did not happen not because there were no Palestinians but because the new political identity of the Israeli emerged and the Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and then occupied. Yet these very events contributed to the solidifying of a Palestinian identity.

A final question for Mr. DeSantis: Don’t you think the 5 million people whom you refuse to recognize as being under Israeli occupation deserve basic human rights, the rights that derive from being citizens of a state? Your people emigrated from southern Italy, where they were very possibly not born “Italians,” to the United States, where they were granted a new citizenship. That citizenship afforded them constitutional rights. Palestinians don’t have such rights. What are you going to do about that?

PART II  (May 4, 2023) 

Ann Arbor – Here is Part 2 of my argument with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis concerning his uninformed and bigoted comments about Palestinians. Part I is here

Who are the Palestinians? Nowadays, they are the Arabic-speaking inhabitants of the area stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, who have gained a political identity as a nation, though it is a nation without a state (as yet). They comprise the largest single population of stateless people in the world. That sense of being part of a nation has grown up, like all nationalism, in the course of the past two centuries. While there were regional identities before then, nations in my view are a modern development.

Genetic history can be combined with archeology to shed light on the ancient origins of modern populations. All the indigenous peoples of the Levant are descended from the Bronze Age Canaanite peoples, whose various city-states dominated what is now Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and part of Syria in the second millennium BCE. Neighboring kingdoms like the Mitanni and Pharaonic Egypt referred to these peoples as “Canaanites.” Aside from the library of clay tablets found in northwest Syria in 1928, from the Canaanite city of Ugarit, relatively little is known about Canaanite civilization. The Ugaritic tablets, in a Semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew, contain mythological tales that shed light on their polytheistic religion.

In their important 2017 paper “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” Marc Haber et al. sequenced the genes of five individuals from Canaanite Sidon, from the the 1600s BCE. They then compared them to 99 contemporary Lebanese.

They write, “We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age.”

Of course, it isn’t just the Lebanese. They say, “We find that a Bronze Age Canaanite-related ancestry was widespread in the region, shared among urban populations inhabiting the coast (Sidon) and inland populations (Jordan).”

Two decades ago, Antonio Arnaiz-Villena et al., in their “The Origin of Palestinians and Their Genetic Relatedness With Other Mediterranean Populations” had already done genetic analyses that “support an autochthonous Canaanite/Middle East origin for both Palestinians and Jews.”

The Levantine populations are all closely related, so that the genetic continuity between the Canaanites and the Lebanese can be generalized to Palestinians and others. A genetic study of Arabic-speakers by Abdelhafidh Hajjej et al., “The genetic heterogeneity of Arab populations as inferred from HLA genes,” found that they fell into four clusters. One of these grouped “Levantine Arabs (Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians), along with Iraqi and Egyptians, who are related to Eastern Mediterraneans.”

So all the Levantine Arabs, including Palestinians, have a common genetic inheritance, and it is disproportionately (93% in the case of Lebanese) in continuity with the Canaanites.

What we now call Palestinians are for the most part descendants of groups who have been in the Near East for four thousand years, at least.

A branch of the Canaanites became Jews, while others became Nabataeans and Phoenicians.

Rome conquered this region beginning in the first century BCE and then extended its holdings into Nabataea (106 AD), Syria and Lebanon. From the 300s the Roman state increasingly backed Christianity, so that most Levantines adopted that religion, though large numbers of Jews held out. From the 630s the Near East began coming under Arab Muslim rule and over hundreds of years many people converted to Islam, including many Jews and Christians. So some of the ancestors of today’s Palestinians were themselves Jewish converts to Christianity or Islam.

“Palestine” as a term for a geographical unit and sometimes a regional identity appears in Arab Muslim sources. The “Jund Filastin” (Filastin is the Arabic transcription of Palestine) was a military district of Syria (Sham) in the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires. The chroniclers of later empires that ruled this area referred to it as “Filastin.” There were mints for coins there and the word occurs on some medieval coins.

The great Israeli historian Haim Gerber writes in his “Palestine” and Other Territorial Concepts in the 17th Century,” (IJMES 1998): “Little-used sources from the 17th and 18th centuries indicate some remarkable traces of awareness of territorial consciousness that deserve closer scrutiny. The main source in question is a two-volume fatwa (legal opinion) composed by the Palestinian Mufti Khayr al-Din al-Ramli (1585-1670), which on many occasions mentions the concepts Filastin, bilddund (our country), al-Sham (Syria), Misr (Egypt), and diyar (country), in senses that go far beyond “mere” objective.”

As for Jews, as far as geneticists can tell, around 800 CE a large male trading colony of Levantine Jews left the Abbasid Empire and crossed the Mediterranean to settle in Rome. That the Jewish diaspora derived from their expulsion by the Roman Empire after the Bar Kochba revolt is a myth. There were lots of Jews in Roman Palestine. Of those who went to Europe for trade, some members eventually moved into what is now Poland, Ukraine and Russia. They tended to take local wives, who converted to Judaism when they married. These became the Ashkenazi Jews. They typically have some Canaanite genetic heritage, though Ashkenazi women are genetically mostly gentiles, and mostly unrelated to one another. The trick here, though, is that geneticists can only trace genealogy through the male y chromosome or though the female mitochondrial DNA. All the other genes split and join with new ones in every generation, so that nothing can be traced. So an Ashkenazi, European Jewish man is descended from all those gentile great-great grandmothers of the past, but they left no permanent trace in the way that the male line of Jewish descent did. And Ashkenazi women have a lot of heritage from their Jewish male ancestors that can no longer be detected.

While genetic history is working itself into various forms of nationalism, I wish it wouldn’t. For one thing, human beings just aren’t that different from one another, even if they carry distinctive haplotypes. Haplotypes are “a set of DNA variants along a single chromosome that tend to be inherited together.” But humans are always evolving and intermarrying, and haplotypes come and go. Some really old human DNA has yielded haplotypes that don’t seem even to exist anymore. We all have diverse ancestries, most of which can no longer be traced.

But the reverse is also true. Naive nationalists misuse genealogical history to exclude and demonize. Some Jewish nationalists or Zionists seem to really mind the scientific finding that today’s Palestinians and other Levantine Arabs show strong genetic continuity with the Canaanites. This dismay derives from the Canaanite city-states and small kingdoms having preceded Israel in history, such that they have a stronger claim on being indigenous. If Palestinians are the descendants of the Canaanites, do they have a superior claim on today’s Israel/Palestine?

Sure, if haplotypes were all that mattered. They aren’t. Human beings today have individual rights, incorporated into treaty law via UN instruments. Palestinians and Israelis both have a Canaanite heritage. That is irrelevant to their present-day human rights. Both should have the right to basic human freedoms, to citizenship in a state, to their own property and livelihoods and to self-fulfilment. Both should be able to live free of violence. These basic rights matter more than from whom they are descended or where their ancestors used to live.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment. He is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan; he is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam