What was Palestine before, if not a country? Could you give me some history on this?

Also, the recent recognition of Palestine as a country in the UN could have far reaching implications. Are there other examples of similar situations where the UN has provided recognition in a volatile region?

EDIT: After reading the following answers, it seems that any answer to the question "what was Palestine before" necessarily includes information about who (for some of you who means which religion or which race) lived in the region at what times. While it is completely fine to provide facts such as X lived in the region R during time T or Y kicked X out in so and so date, it is not okay to make judgements about who belonged there and who was right or wrong. If you want to take this route, I would suggest doing it on another thread. The question here is not to discuss Israel-Palestine conflict. The question simply asks what was Palestine before.

  • Excellent question. Awaiting replies from experts on mid-east here before posting my own. I expect many replies here.
    – Apoorv
    Nov 30, 2012 at 12:21
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    IMO excellent topic, but not an excellent question. @Cantor should make it obvious that he did his own research before reaching out to this community: after all, there is a lot of related news coverage these days, etc.
    – Drux
    Nov 30, 2012 at 13:51
  • I'll try. Its really tough to do both fairly and succinctly.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 30, 2012 at 14:37
  • Originally a protectorate under the British after World War 2, but under Israel the West Bank and Gaza shifted quite a bit. Still I agree with Drux, what have you looked at on this or discovered on your own?
    – MichaelF
    Nov 30, 2012 at 14:58

7 Answers 7


During the last one hundred fifty years or so, the concept of Zionism, the desire of the Jews to run their own state in their historical biblical territory, become prevalent. Theoretically such a state would be free from the periodic persecutions Jews have suffered since the diaspora while living in other people's countries. This resulted in a large number of Jews immigrating to what was the British territory of Palestine in the early 20th century. The persecutions of the era in Europe and Russia were particularly effective in driving this.

The problem of course was that Palestine already had (mostly Muslim) residents. This created a huge bloody mess, culminating in a civil war, which the Jewish militia won, and then a regional war, which the new Jewish armed forces won.

During this whole mess, those who weren't fighting and could get out of Palestine did so (war zones aren't particularly fun for civilians). After the war the victorious Jews allowed Jewish refugees to come back to their homes, but for the most part refused the same courtesy to Muslim Palestinian refugees. Most of them either resettled in the left over bits of former-Palestine that the new country of Israel wasn't claiming, or went into exile in other countries. Many of their descendants are citizens of no country in the world even today (makes passports a problem, no?)

The "leftover bits" of Palestine were mostly claimed by their neighboring Arab countries. However, in the ensuing wars, those same neighboring Arab countries lost all those territories (and often some of their own), so the rest of what used to be Palestine has mostly over the years been stateless areas off-and-on under the domination of the Israeli military.

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A couple of those bits, namely what is now called "the west bank of the Jordan", and "The Gaza Strip", many people would like to use to create a new country for Palestinian Arabs. The problem here is that a lot of Jews feel that they won those territories in war fair and square, not to mention the fact that God gave that land to them in the Torah. I don't think its a majority that feel that way, but its an extremely troublesome minority that like to back up their feeling by building Jewish settlements on the land. So what the border between Israel and this purported Palestinian state would be is unknown right now, and would probably require either a treaty or a war to sort out (and Jewish claims keep changing thanks to new settlements).

The Palestinians have been trying hard to build themselves a state in those territories. One big problem there is that Gaza and the west bank aren't physically connected, and after a disputed election now have two competing governments. The government of Gaza, Hamas, doubles as a terrorist organization. The government of the west bank keeps getting its authority undercut by those settlements on what it considers its land, and its inability to negotiate anything with Israel.

So if Palestine is a state, its a state with completely undefined borders, two different competing governments, and without ultimate authority (aka: a monopoly on the use of force) in whatever territory it does possess.

Basically, Palestine isn't a state so much as a bloody mess.

  • Thank you for the answer. So basically Palestine referred to a region with mostly muslim inhabitants who had various rulers but did not have a structure that we call a "country" now a days (whatever that meant at the time). Then another group of people looking for a place to stay and be safe started buying lands in that region (fair and square), but after gaining enough land and power they decided to have their own country. Through wars, they succeeded in making the state of Israel and had it recognized (except by arabs) in 1948. What has occurred since then seems natural.
    – Cantor
    Nov 30, 2012 at 16:55
  • If I understand correctly, when Israel was recognized as a state, the remaining territories were not recognized as the state of Palestine, so Israel started taking those territories as well. Why did it take so long for some of the remaining territory to be recognized as a country (of Palestine)?
    – Cantor
    Nov 30, 2012 at 17:00
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    Two clarifications. First, there was in fact, before all this started, a British territory there named "Palestine". However, that entity ceased to exist in the 40's. Second, Israel didn't just "take" them for fun. From the Israli point of view, all but one of the Arab/Isreli wars were in fact initiated by the Arab states (although definitively stating who "started" anything in this morass is asking for trouble).
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 30, 2012 at 17:28
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    @T.E.D. - sorry but this is woefully incomplete (and the incompleteness makes it biased, though perhaps not intentionally). For example, "settlements". Hebron is always referred to as "Settlement", despite the fact that it was an uninterrupted Jewish city till 1900s when Jews were driven out by Arab pogroms. So why isn't Hebron considered a territory occupied by Arabs, and there are calls for them to both get out, AND let all the Jewish refugies back in?
    – DVK
    Nov 30, 2012 at 18:36
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    As a quick and rough summary this isn't half bad. What got left out is the terrorist history of the PLO, the organization which became the ruling power of the West Bank. Another important point that was stated wrongly: there were no Jewish refugees from the 1948 war. Only the Arabs left. But what did happen, is that the Arab states forcibly expelled their Jewish populations (which had been living their as long as the Arabs in Palestine, and much longer in some cases) - and they were absorbed by Israel. Dec 1, 2012 at 21:13

It's hard to answer this ("What was Palestine before, if not a country") in a format that's not encyclopaedic, but I'll try some snippets:

  1. No there was never a country/nation called a "Palestine".

  2. More specifically about the name: it was a name given by Roman Empire to the territory they occupied and conquered from the Israel in the first century AD (the name taken from an ancient tribe of Philistines who lived in the area (5 cities) and were one of the main enemies of Ancient Israelis), though the term was also used earlier by other invading powers (Greeks, Assyrians).

    Just to clarify, Philistines were - according to the best archaeological and historical information - NOT in any way, shape or form related to modern Arab Islamic residents of the area. Their language was Indo-European and not Semitic.

    The term was first used to denote an official province in c.135 CE, when the Roman authorities, following the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, combined Iudaea Province with Galilee and other surrounding cities such as Ashkelon to form "Syria Palaestina" (Syria Palaestina), which some scholars state was in order to complete the dissociation with Judaea (Wikipedia)

  3. Ever since the desruction of the Kingdom of Israel by the Roman Empire, there was never a sovereign state in the area till 1948. The area was always under control of some outside power, to whit: Romans, Byzantines, the Sunni Arab Caliphates, the Shia Fatimid Caliphate, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mameluks, Ottomans, the British. I won't bother with the dates which Wikipedia can easily provide you.

  4. As best as I can tell, the ancestors of modern Arab Palestinians only arrived in the area in 636 AD and on, as part of Islamic conquest of the area. Note that the area was still populated by Jews at the time, though there was no Jewish state.

  5. To be crystal clear, the reason Israel now occupies the territories commonly referred to as "Gaza" and "West Bank", is because they have been conquered as a result of a war started by OTHER countries (see below for that).

Now, as for your second question: "Are there other examples of similar situations where the UN has provided recognition in a volatile region?"

  • No, the UN has never provided a recognition to an area of a nation which wished to secede without agreement.

    For example, Kurdistani areas in Turkey, Iran and Iraq; Basques in Spain; Chechens in Russia; Abkhazia in Georgia etc. For that matter, as far as I know even Kosovo isn't recognized as a state by UN. Neither is Taiwan.

  • Moreover, I am hard-pressed to find a single example of a country being forced by the UN to give back the territory it had conquered in a war that was started by their opponents (which is exactly what happened with West Bank and Gaza). USSR/Russia holds German (Koenisberg) and Japanese (4 islands) territory they took as a result of WW2.

    Hell, many countries invaded and stole land as a result of offensive war and UN never bothered to object (Tibet by China, as an example).

    For that matter, nobody at the UN was calling West Bank and Gaza "occupied territories" and calling for their statehood between 1948 and 1967 when they were occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively.

To cover another aspect that TED's answer touched on: the term "settlements" everyone uses. One of the example of these so-called "Settlements" is Hebron.

  • Hebron was a Jewish city. As a matter of fact it was one of the first and among the most important cities in Israel due to its biblical roots.

  • Past Roman destruction around 135AD, the city was destroyed, and Jews were not permitted to reside there under Byzantine Empire

  • After Islamic conquests, Jews returned back to the city. Ever since then, Jews held a continuous presence there until 1929 Hebron massacre forced most of them to flee and 1936 when British kicked all those who were left out.

So... according to UN and everyone else, Jews building houses in a city that they lived in for several thousand years with minor breaks is a greater threat for peace than ... I don't know, teaching every schoolchild in the territories that killing Jews is a Good Thing.

  • 8
    I'd encourage dropping (or rephrasing?) point 4. If 1,400 years of living somewhere isn't a good claim, then almost nobody in the Western Hemisphere or Australia should be living where they are, the Turks don't belong in Turkey, the English don't belong in England, no slavs belong in the Balkans, the Hungarians don't belong in Hungary, etc. I do love history, but at some point you have to give up on it and deal with the situation as it exists today.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 30, 2012 at 19:20
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    @T.E.D. - the point of point 4 is twofold, neither of which is what you refer to. One is to dispute the "Palestinians are descendants of Philistines", the other is that Jews lived there longer, so you either accept the status quo, OR go with the oldest configuration, but you can't pick some random cutoff date (e.g. 1800) to decide on today's ownership.
    – DVK
    Nov 30, 2012 at 19:44
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    @DVK As for why West Point and Gaza are considered occupied territories now, I think it is fair to say that a people may be considered to be occupied when they do not enjoy as a group the rights of other citizens. Maybe this is the reason the UN considers these territories to be occupied only when they came under Israel. Any ideas?
    – Arani
    Nov 30, 2012 at 21:15
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    @user571376 - do they consider Tibet occupied? And did they enjoy those rights under Jordan and Egypt?
    – DVK
    Nov 30, 2012 at 22:43
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    @LouisRhys - Nobody criticizing Israel ever criticized Russia for keeping troops in East Germany. And almost nobody criticizing Israel criticized China for Tibet and certainly not to the point of advocating for boycoytts of China (I can probably find a tiny principled subset that does both).
    – DVK
    Apr 17, 2014 at 11:19

Actually the problem is that somebody with a contrived mind in 1947 decided that instead of creating one state of Israel, there should be two new states: one for Jews and another for Arabs.

This plan did not account for the fact that there were already 21 Arab state of which 2 bordered the territory of the "Palestinian Arab state" that was to be created.

Another problem was that the territory reserved for the new Arab state was divided into two parts, enclaves which could communicate with each other only via Israel territory.

The third problem was that this new Arab state to be created had no natural resources, fresh water, arable land so to supply itself.

A peaceful solution could be instead of creating one more Arab state, just annex the Wast Bank to Jordan and the Gaza strip - to Egypt. This would benefit the Arab population in those areas because they would live in successful states which have all necessary for popular prosperity. It seems that those Arab countries did not object this idea initially.

Yet the UN voted for this defective "two new states" solution. It seems that those behind this plan intentionally did not want a prolonged peace in the region.

The dead-born design of the adopted resolution brought numerous misfortunes to both Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

  • According the solution Jerusalem should be placed under UN administration, even though it is populated be the Jews and a religious center of Judaism and historical capitol of Judea from the times of Roman empire. Uncertain status of Jerusalem makes conflict between Jews and Arabs eternal and irresolvable (they even formally cannot negotiate over Jerusalem, for example, divide it somehow) until a newer, better UN resolution is passed.

  • Israel suffers from much of terrorism but cannot close the border of the Arab autonomy because the two enclaves have no other connection than through Israel territory. International pressure insists on the border to be open.

  • Palestine has no natural resources and in all their supplies, including electricity and fresh water depends on Israel. Most Palestinians also work in Israel because the Autonomy cannot provide enough jobs.

  • Palestinians deprived of the right to live in a healthy and prosperous Arab state like Egypt and Jordan and instead destined to be confined on a 5-cent area territory that hardly can include and supply all the population, which by the way, grows very fast. They have neither normal citizenship, nor jobs and directed by the "international community" into fight with Israel as the only possible pastime.

  • The geographical disjunction of the Gaza and the West bank led to the inevitable consequence: the power in those respective enclaves was seized by different and hostile to each other parties: Hamas and Fatah. There is no possibility foe each of them to restore the autonomy’s political unity.

If Gaza was initially assigned to Egypt, it would be a successful and prosperous resort, and we would spend our vacations there just like we do in Hurgada and Sharm el-Sheikh.

  • 8
    There are IHMO some historical problems with this answer. For instance, the UN initially OK'ed Jordan to annex the west bank (and it did so for 20 years). The problem was that it then lost it again in a war (that by most accounts it started) with Israel. To make things worse Jordan doesn't want it back now, and Israel doesn't really want to annex it either, as it is full of non-Jews.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 30, 2012 at 19:39
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    @T.E.D. Can you point to a source that the UN approved annexation of the West Bank? Regarding modern Jordan it is the US that made it explicit that Jordan and Egypt should not annex the territories. As US allies they follow the Washington line.
    – Anixx
    Nov 30, 2012 at 19:49
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    Actually, now that I look at it again, you're right. I was thinking of the Peel Commision (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peel_Commission), but conflating it with the 1947 UN partition plan, which was another two-state solution. However, it looks like the Brits (who were helping run Jordan's military) essentially saw their Peel Commission idea carried out anyway. The UN never really approved that (even the US barely did). Dang, this is convoluted...
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 30, 2012 at 20:40

150 years ago, Palestine was a dominion of the Ottoman Empire who basically didn't demand much from her subjects and was mostly incompetent. Of those who became known as the Palestinians, there were a few wealthy clans (Husseni, Nashishbi, pardon my spelling) who lived in cities and owned a lot of land and a lot of peasants who worked on the land. There were also some middle class merchants, craftsmen and peasants who owned land. Arabs were either Moslem or Christian. There were also Jews who tended to be in the middle class and some very wealthy Jews in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.

Various groups of Europeans also settled in Palestine and there was a lot of German investment to build a railroad from Cairo to Constantinople. Nationalism, of which Zionism is a form, was also really popular at the time so many European Jews came and settled on lands purchased by large benefactors such as the Montefiores and the Rothchilds. Jewish charities also collected money from small people and used it to buy land, from the wealthy landowners. When Jews bought land, they wanted Jewish immigrants to work on it so they often fired their Arab peasant laborers and hired Jewish laborers.

In 1947 something called the Arab Higher Council formed in an attempt to prevent the Jews from forming a state in the manner of the UN partition which they opposed. Had they been successful, the Arab Higher Council would have formed a state, but disunity among the wealthy Arab clans and the loss of some of their charismatic leaders in battle caused them to fall apart. In 1948, Jordan and Egypt took over what the Jews did not get. The original 1964 PLO charter affirms that they did not consider the Jordanians to be occupiers.

  • Adding: "because the Jordanians we're mostly benevolent to the Palestinians" Mar 14 at 19:54

Palestine was provisionally recognised as a Nation by the League of Nations in the Mandate process (all class A mandates were "provisional" states). Though what this means is pretty debatable, doubly so with the Palestinian Mandate with the insertion of the Balfour Declaration.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_of_Nations_mandate "The first group, or Class A mandates, were territories formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire that were deemed to "... have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory."


The other answers are too complicated.

Prior to 1947, the area we now call Palestine was a British colony.

However, because the British Empire was a little tricky and played games with legalism, they called it a mandate. What is a mandate you ask? If you look in a dictionary, it says:

an order or commission granted by the League of Nations to a member nation for the establishment of a responsible government over a former German colony or other conquered territory

Note above is says "other conquered territory". The British were able to strip this land from the Ottoman Empire. For a broad overview of how this happened, see the movie Lawrence of Arabia. While not very accurate, it gives a general idea of how things went.

Wikipedia has a nice article about the legalistic games of the mandate. In a nutshell,

The British achieved legitimacy for their continued control by obtaining a mandate from the League of Nations in June 1922 from here.


Given the dispute of Palestine as a polity, or a geographical concept, it may be of interest to you that a term cognate with Palestine was used from a very early age:

Modern archaeology has identified 12 ancient inscriptions from Egyptian and Assyrian records recording likely cognates of Hebrew Pelesheth. The term "Peleset" (transliterated from hieroglyphs as P-r-s-t) is found in five inscriptions referring to a neighboring people or land starting from c. 1150 BCE during the Twentieth dynasty of Egypt. The first known mention is at the temple at Medinet Habu which refers to the Peleset among those who fought with Egypt in Ramesses III's reign, and the last known is 300 years later on Padiiset's Statue. Seven known Assyrian inscriptions refer to the region of "Palashtu" or "Pilistu", beginning with Adad-nirari III in the Nimrud Slab in c. 800 BCE through to a treaty made by Esarhaddon more than a century later. Neither the Egyptian nor the Assyrian sources provided clear regional boundaries for the term.

(The extract is from the wikipedia entry on Palestine).


Before Mandatory Palestine under British stewardship, Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire for around 400 years.

  • 4
    What your answer fails to mention is that this is purely a geographical concept - the Philistines who lived there and provided the name had absolutely nothing in common whatsoever with Arabs/Moslems who call themselves "Palestinians"; either linguistically or ethnically. Modern day Palestinians are just descendants of Arab invaders who started to settle there after 600AD (couple of thousand years after Jews lived there) as part of Islam's expansion. In other words, the fact that the term "Palestine" is old has absolutely zero relationship to modern day Arab-Israeli issues.
    – DVK
    Jun 9, 2019 at 18:10
  • @DVK: That doesn't make sense; plenty of countries use terms involving 'land' for example England; there is no purely geographical terms. Only the term land - used abstractly can mean land; but that has nothing to do with what I'm talking about here. I'm not talking of a dictionary meaning of land. Mar 24, 2020 at 9:43

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