(JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the Palestinians have no ancient connection to the land of Israel, and used a recent archaeological find to claim that biblical Philistines were actually from 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,” he wrote at the start of a series of three tweets. “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.”
He added: “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 tweets come amid a larger debate, mostly on Twitter, about the history of the Palestinians that has centered on statements by Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, and Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. Yair Netanyahu suggested that there is no Palestinian people. Sarsour tweeted that Jesus was a Palestinian.
Both claims are controversial, but both get at a question that is one of the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Who has the land belonged to, historically?
The younger Netanyahu said in a speech to a Christian Zionist audience last week that most Palestinians came to the current territory of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza about a century ago. He said that some Palestinian last names indicate that the people are from other places, like Egypt or Syria.
“Most of the Arabs who live today in the land of Israel and call themselves Palestinian only came to the land around 100 years ago from neighboring countries,” Yair Netanyahu said, forming scare quotes when using word “Palestinian.” “Not only were Jews the first in the land of Israel in ancient times, they were first in modern times.”
Benjamin Netanyahu’s tweet appears to support a similar idea: that present-day Palestinians do not have ancient roots in the land. Netanyahu began his political career opposing a Palestinian state, pivoted for six years to supporting a demilitarized one, and now opposes Palestinian statehood once again. Earlier this year, he promised to annex Israeli settlements if reelected.
Sarsour’s tweet goes in the opposite direction. She tweeted on Friday that “Jesus was Palestinian” because he was born in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth. Bethlehem is currently a city under control of the Palestinian Authority and Nazareth is an Arab-Israeli city.
“Jesus was Palestinian of Nazareth and is described in the Quran as being brown copper skinned with wooly hair,” she tweeted. She added in a subsequent tweet that “Palestinian is a nationality. So when someone says Jesus was born in modern day Palestine that doesn’t negate that he was a Jew.”
Critics of Sarsour noted that at the time of Jesus’ life, the territory was called Judaea, and was called Palestine by the Romans only a century after his death.
But the debate predates both Netanyahus as well as Sarsour. Israel’s right has long claimed that there is no real Palestinian people, either because there was no political entity called Palestine or because present-day Palestinians are descendant from migrants to the area. Therefore, they see no reason to give up control of territory to a Palestinian state.
Palestinians point to the population of the land before Zionists began arriving in the territory roughly 140 years ago, and to hundreds of Palestinian towns that existed before Israel declared independence in 1948 — as well as the current population of Palestinians who live there.
Although most Jewish Israelis are descended from people who immigrated to the land beginning in the late 19th century and continuing well into the late 20th century, they likewise point to the continuous Jewish presence across millennia in the land. Much of the territory of the current state of Israel was governed in ancient times by a Jewish commonwealth centered in Jerusalem. Jewish communities persisted in the Holy Land from Roman times through the modern Zionist era.
Prayers to return to the land of Israel are central to Jewish liturgy, and it is the setting of much of the Hebrew Bible, whose commandments and stories place the land at the center of Jewish life.
For the record: The archaeological finds that the prime minister referenced were not meant to be political. In fact, the lead author of the study said that the discovery shows that DNA, culture and ethnicity are not the same.
“DNA can be a powerful tool to record history and answer historical questions,” archaeogeneticist Michal Feldman said in a statement. “On the other hand, it reminds us that culture or ethnicity do not necessarily equal the genetic make-up of the same groups.”