Changing the Historical Narrative: Saeb Erekat’s New Spin

, March 23, 2014

Institute for Contemporary Affairs, founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 14, No. 8    March 23, 2014

  • Palestinian leaders are manipulating the history of geographic Palestine/Land of Israel. They have manufactured a curious claim, expressed recently by Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, that they are descended from Canaanites and are therefore the indigenous people of the area, present before the emergence of the Jewish people around the year 1500 BCE.
  • Saeb Erekat’s family is Bedouin. According to Bedouin genealogy, the family is part of the Huweitat clan which originated in the Hejaz area of Saudi Arabia, arrived in Palestine from the south of Jordan, and settled in the village of Abu Dis in the early twentieth century.
  • Several leading scholars of Middle Eastern studies and Islamic history have confirmed that the Palestinians do not have ancient roots in the area and are trying to invent origins for themselves that predate the Jewish people’s presence.
  • They explain that most of the Palestinians arrived as part of the waves of immigration that began in the nineteenth century at the time of the emergence of Zionism, attracted by employment opportunities and economic benefits.
  • The historical presence of the Jewish people in the “Holy Land” is well-documented, not only in the scriptures of all three monotheistic religions, and visible in extensive archeological remains, but also in historic writings by early Greek, Roman, pagan, and other visitors to the area. The fact that Christianity emanated from Judaism is further proof of the presence of a thriving Jewish community in the area.

Manipulating History for Political Purposes

Aside from the topical and pragmatic issues on the negotiating table between Israel and the Palestinians – borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, water, and security arrangements – there is a far deeper discussion that is not taking place in the negotiating room but in the international arena. This discussion involves the issue of historical narratives and the basic question of historic rights to geographic and historic Palestine.

Palestinian leaders are manipulating their history in the land for political purposes. They have manufactured a curious claim, expressed recently by Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, that they are descended from Canaanites and are therefore the indigenous people of the area, present before the emergence of the Jewish people around the year 1500 BCE.

Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, has already established an international reputation for stretching the truth. Many Israelis recall during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 when Erekat went on CNN to assert that Israel had killed “more than 500 people” in Jenin in a “real massacre,”1 adding that 300 Palestinians were being buried in mass graves. It soon became clear that in combat operations at the time, the Palestinian death toll in Jenin was 52: 34 of whom (65 percent) were known military operatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or Fatah-Tanzim. Now Erekat’s wild assertions have moved into the field of history as part of a Palestinian battle over the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinian leadership relies on the thirst of the international media to seriously take up any wild and baseless Palestinian claim; on the pressures of the ongoing negotiating process with the high-level involvement of senior U.S. and European politicians who are keen to show achievements; and, above all, on the wide and almost automatic inclination of the international community to criticize Israel and to buy into any artificial claim uttered by the Palestinian leadership.

Saeb Erekat’s Curious Claim

While one might assume that as the chief Palestinian negotiator and long-term participant in negotiations with Israel since the Madrid Conference of 1991, Saeb Erekat would, and indeed should, be deeply ensconced in the ongoing negotiating process – a process that needs to be conducted in a confidential, serious, and civil manner – this regrettably does not seem to be the case.

In fact, in direct contrast to what any serious chief negotiator should be doing vis-a-vis the other negotiating party, Erekat prefers to indulge on a daily basis in blatant demagogy, hostile outbursts, wild accusations, and attacks against Israel, its leaders and negotiators, and above all, in simply misleading the international community and media.2

A recent fabrication, vented at an international security conference in Munich on February 1, 2014, and which received considerable prominence in international political and media circles, has generated considerable criticism and even ridicule. According to Erekat’s curious claim, he is a direct descendant of the Canaanite tribes who lived in Israel some 9,000 years ago:

I am the proud son of the Canaanites who were there 5,500 years before Joshua bin Nun burned down the town of Jericho.3

No less amazing is the recent statement by a member of the Jordanian Parliament, Sheikh Mousa Abu Sweilam, on February 3, 2014, according to which:

The Palestinians are the original owners of Palestine, who lived on its land when they moved from the western Mediterranean basin to its east in 7000 BC.4

Ahmed Tibi, a member of Israel’s Knesset, is quoted in the Ha’aretz newspaper from January 19, 2014, stating:

….the Arab citizens of Israel are an indigenous population.5

The Erekat claim was immediately controverted by several authoritative sources who cited, among other things, Erekat’s own Facebook entry describing the origin of the Erekat clan to be from the Huweitat clan in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula.6

The Erekat Family History

Erekat’s family, presently residing in Jericho, previously lived in the village of Abu Dis near Jerusalem. In fact, the Erekat family was never part of the Jericho tribal system. It is a Bedouin family which, according to Bedouin genealogy, came to the area from the south of Jordan, an area called Husseyniya and Rashaida, at an undisclosed time.7

According to genealogical research of the Bedouin families in Israel, the Erekat family belongs to the extensive Huweitat clan, which originated in the area between the Liya valley, near Taif, in the vicinity of Mecca in the northern Hejaz region, close to the town of Hekl in the Sarawat Mountains, 350 km. from the Jordanian border, and northern Aqaba.8 Bedouin genealogical literature claims that the Huweitat clan is a Sharifi clan allied with their cousins the Hashemites.9 The Huweitat clan settled not only in Israel but also in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Sinai Peninsula by Ras Seeder.10

A branch of this clan settled in geographic Palestine in several waves of immigration that started some 200 years ago, ending during the period of the Arab Revolt and First World War. Apparently, the family to which Erekat belongs settled in Abu Dis near Jerusalem during the last of these waves, which occurred in the early twentieth century, after the Jewish immigration to the area.

The first wave of this immigration brought the Fahum and Hanun branches of the clan to settle in Nazareth and Tul-Karem. They were followed by another branch of the well-known Shuman family, which settled in Nablus (owners of the Amman-based Arab Bank, one of the biggest banks in the Arab world).

According to Bedouin genealogy, the branches of the Huweitat clan that had already settled in Jordan welcomed the clan’s newcomers, who came with the Hashemite Sharifi army during the Arab Revolt at the beginning of the last century and helped found the Kingdom of Jordan. This branch came from southern Jordan, from the center of the Huweitat clans’ area, and is considered entirely Jordanian rather than Palestinian.

Scholars on Islam Question Palestinian Claims

The claims by Erekat and his colleagues of their Canaanite provenance, if they were considered serious, could in fact give rise to some difficult questions as to the very character and identity of the Palestinian people as a part of the Arab peoples. Taking Erekat’s claim to its logical and sequential conclusion, is he claiming that Palestine should be recognized as the nation-state of the Canaanite people?

In a similar vein, his declaration raises serious questions regarding the very roots of Islam and the origins of the Hashemite dynasty (connected with the Huweitat clan11), and as such regarding the ethnic origin of the Imam Ali, cousin of the Prophet Mohammad, to whom the Shi’a denomination of Islam relates. If the Huweitat are Canaanites, as claimed by Erekat, this would logically lead to the absurd conclusion that the descendants of the Imam Hussein Ibn Ali are not Arabs but Canaanites.

The general claim to Palestinian indigenous status has been questioned by a number of scholars of the Middle East and experts on Islam:

  • Professor Rafi Israeli from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem notes the absurdity in the link that the Palestinians have tried to create with the ancient Canaanites.12

“The early origins of the Arabs who came to this country are in the Arabian peninsula….The first ones came from there. Now they are standing on their heads. Instead of saying that they are Arabs who immigrated to Canaan and turned it into a Muslim country, they have rendered themselves indigenous Canaanites.”

“Even their Arab surnames give clear clues that they immigrated here. In Umm al-Fahm, there are four large clans who originated in Egypt. In the Old City of Jerusalem, one can find the Moroccan Quarter, which was home to Muslims who came from North Africa, the Maghreb, and settled in the Land of Israel.”

“Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire transferred populations from place to place in order to tighten its control over those areas….[T]ake, for example, the Circassians, Muslims who were brought here from the Caucasus.”

“The Palestinians don’t really have roots here. They know this very well, so they are trying to invent origins for themselves. Whenever you offer historic or archaeological criticism of this nonsense, learned scholars the world over immediately insist that you ‘respect the narrative.’ It doesn’t matter one bit to them whether there is historical truth there. If we do not debunk this, it will be accepted as fact. If you repeat a lie thousands of times, it eventually becomes accepted as true, so we mustn’t keep quiet.”13

  • Dr. Rivka Shpak Lissak, in her book Responding to Palestinian Rewriting of HistoryHow and When the Jewish Majority in the Land of Israel Was Eliminated and the Jewish Diaspora Was Created,14 states:

“Historically, no national Arab entity ever has established a national state in this country. The Land of Israel was conquered in 640 A.D. and occupied by Muslim-Arabs until 1071. A large percent of the Palestinians are descendants of Arabs and Muslims who immigrated to the Land of Israel a few generations ago illegally from Arab and Muslim countries.”

On the general question of the Arab conquest, Dr. Rivka Shpak Lissak summarizes the chain of developments as follows:

“The Arab occupation of the Land of Israel lasted from 640 to 1071, roughly 400 years. The Seljuks, Muslim Turks, conquered the land from the Arabs, but on the eve of the First Crusade, they lost it to the Fatimid who ruled it until 1099, when the Crusaders took over. Saladin, who was not an Arab, but a Muslim Kurd from Iraq, defeated the Crusaders in 1187 and ruled until his death (1192). Following the Battle of Hattin and the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, he took over other parts of the country while the Crusaders maintained their hold over the rest. An agreement signed by his successors with the Crusaders returned the Galilee to them and they moved their capital to Acre. The Mamelukes, Muslim Turks, conquered the Land of Israel from the Crusaders in 1260 and ruled it until 1516, when it was taken over by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the Land of Israel for 400 years. The Muslim rule in the Land of Israel ended in 1918 and a Mandate over the country was given to the British.”15

  • Dr. Shaul Bartal, a Middle Eastern scholar from Bar-Ilan University, says16 that while in many Palestinian history books, heavy emphasis is placed on “the Arab conquest of Palestine” in 638, “a conquest that for 1,300 years made Palestine into Islamic territory,” in fact, the waves of immigration from the Arabian Peninsula and the subsequent arrivals of Arabs from Transjordan and Syria are what led to the continued settlement of Arabs in this country.

“Even in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority, the origins of Arab families are traced back to those who came here from Jordan in the late 15th century.”

A research study that Bartal co-authored with Dr. Rivka Shpak Lissak shows that the four main clans that make up the population of Umm el-Fahm – Makhagna, Jabrin, Mahamid, and Aghbariya – trace their roots back to families who immigrated to Palestine in the seventeenth century onward from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Syria. It was only afterward, during the nineteenth century, when many families from Egypt and Transjordan joined them.

“The Palestinians are not the farmers who have lived in Palestine for generations, but rather immigrants who only arrived recently. It was only toward the latter stages of the nineteenth century that the country began to blossom thanks to the emergence of a new presence – Zionism – and the amazing results. In 1878, the population of the country numbered 141,000 Muslims who lived here permanently, with at least 25 percent of them considered to be newly arrived immigrants who came mostly from Egypt.”

“Various studies done over a span of years by Moshe Brawer, Gideon Kressel, and other scholars clearly show that most Arab families who settled in the villages along the coastal plain and the area that would later become the State of Israel originated from Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan….Other studies show that the waves of immigrants came here in droves from Arab countries during the period of the British Mandate.”

The Arab immigrants were drawn to the land because Jewish settlement there brought on development of economic opportunities as well as improvement in sanitation and medicine.

Attesting to the huge Muslim immigration into the area, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked in 1939 that the immigration of Arabs to Palestine since 1921 was outpacing the immigration of Jews during that same period. Winston Churchill commented on the massive waves of Arab immigration into the country during that time. “Despite the fact that they were never persecuted, masses of Arabs poured into the country and multiplied until the Arab population grew more than what all of world Jewry could add to the Jewish population,” he said.

  • Dr. Arieh Perlman, in his book The Origin of Palestinian Arabs,17 records the entry into and conquest of the “Holy Land” since the seventh century CE (636 to be exact) by various Arab, Muslim, and Christian elements, dynasties and tribes, including, among others, the Abbasid dynasty (750), the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty in 969, the Turks and Seleucids in the eleventh century, the Crusaders (1099) and then back to the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty, and then to the Muslims of Sallah-a-Din, Turks, Tatars (1260), Egyptian kingdom, Mongols, and Ottomans (1517), the occupation of Galilee by Shiekh Daher el-Omar in the mid-eighteenth century, and the occupation of the area by the Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha in the mid-nineteenth century.

To the above may be added raids and movement by Bedouin tribes from the western desert since the late nineteenth and up to the mid-twentieth centuries, and the above-noted influx of Arab populations from Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Cyprus, Yemen, Spain, Albania and Australia and other North African countries, seeking to benefit from the relatively advanced development and modernization in the area instituted by the Jewish population, and concomitant chances of increased income.

  • Prof. Gideon M. Kressel, Professor Emeritus of Cultural-Social Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University, and Dr. Reuven Aharoni, Dept. of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University, in their study Egyptian Emigres in the Levant of the 19th and 20th Centuries,18 recall a statement on March 23, 2012, by Hamas Interior and National Security Minister Fathi Hammad that “half of the Palestinians are Egyptian and the other half Saudis.”19
  • Prof. Solomon Zeitlin of Dropsie College, in his monograph Jewish Rights in Palestine,20 observes:

“The Palestinian Arabs or the Arabs of Trans-Jordania never ruled Palestine. Palestine had been conquered by the Arabs who came from the South….The dynasties of the Omayyads and the Abbasids were not natives of Palestine. Certainly the Mamelukes and later the Turks not only were not Palestinian Arabs, but were an entirely different race; they were not even Semitic.

“Palestine up to 734 C.E. was never an Arabic country and was never so considered by geographers and historians. Josephus as well as the Roman geographer Strabo placed Arabia beyond the boundaries of Palestine, or as it was then called, Judaea.”

  • Dr. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and other experts view the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity and then to Islam as a contributing factor to the extensive rise in the Muslim population in the area in the early nineteenth century.21 They trace a not insignificant percentage of Palestinian residents of the area to their Jewish forbears.

Conclusion

No one should take Saeb Erekat’s claims about Canaanite ancestry seriously. His attempt to inject a false narrative into Israeli-Palestinian relations undermines negotiations between the parties and is a diversion from the substantive issues that must be discussed.

The historical presence and existence of the Jewish people in the Middle East generally, and the area of Palestine or “the Holy Land,” in particular, has continued from time immemorial up to the present day. It is well-documented and proven, not only in the scriptures of all three monotheistic religions, and visible in extensive archeological remains, but is also borne-out by empirical historic writings and records by early Greek, Roman, pagan and other visitors to the area.

The fact that the sources of Christianity evolved and emanated from Judaism is, in and of itself, further proof of the presence of a thriving Jewish community in the area generally, and in the specific areas in which the Jews existed from biblical times, including Judea (from which the term “Jew” stems), Samaria, and the other neighboring tribal areas.

Of all extant peoples, the Jewish people have the strongest claim to be indigenous to the “Holy Land,” where Judaism, the Hebrew language, and the Jewish people were born around 3,000 years ago. No one, Saeb Erekat included, can cast any doubt on this fact.

*     *     *

Notes

*  The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.
1. See Erekat on CNN making claims about the Jenin “massacre” in the video “Who Else Is Being Injured by the Vilification of Israel?” (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=im7lVj9AE7M&list=PL1uUSrjSnB01hMKCu6TZnq-pamjhX8UHl
2. Recent examples of Erekat’s threats, accusations and attacks include:
rejection of Israel as a Jewish state – http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-said-set-to-accept-kerrys-framework-proposals/?utm_source=The+Times+of+Israel+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=2149ae0f1a-2014_02_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_adb46cec92-2149ae0f1a-54502869; threats to petition the international criminal court against Israel -
http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Erekat-Israeli-announcement-of-new-settlement-building-would-destroy-peace-process-336356;
rejection of Israelis living in a Palestinian state – http://www.timesofisrael.com/sources-in-pmo-slam-pa-for-saying-no-settlers-can-stay-in-palestine/ http://www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-threatens-to-rally-un-against-settlement-cancer/; http://www.aawsat.net/2014/01/article55326673; http://www.aawsat.net/2014/01/article55326673; http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=662366;
glorifying and praising terrorist leaders Al-Ayyam, Jan. 6 2014; threats to call for a global economic boycott of Israel – http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4490386,00.html; threat regarding the 1967 borders http://www.commentarymagazine.com/topic/saeb-erekat/;
accusation that Israel propping up the Hamas administration in Gaza – http://www.timesofisrael.com/erekat-israel-is-keeping-hamas-in-power/
3. http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-said-set-to-accept-kerrys-framework-proposals/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter. See also http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/02/02/pa-negotiator-saeb-erekat-claims-family-was-canaanite-in-israel-for-9000-years/. See also http://elderofziyon.blogspot.co.il/2014/02/erekats-latest-lie-my-family-was-in.html#.Uws_DjjNuM-, and see the Palestinian press at http://www.palpress.co.uk/arabic/?Action=Details&ID=106519.
4. http://www.mfs-theothernews.com/2014/02/video-antisemitic-remarks-by-jordanian.html
5. http://www.haaretz.co.il/magazine/.premium-1.2212485
6. See the Erekat family Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/notes/arekat-family/%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%AA/255831057552
7. http://amayra.yoo7.com/t3-topic
8. Ibid., based on several genealogy books of the Arab tribes in the Levant. See also “The Huweitat Clans,” http://alahaywat.blogspot.ca/2013/12/blog-post_2522.html
9. https://www.facebook.com/hewitat.masr/posts/311737358840143 The close relationship between the Huweitat Sharifi clan and the Hashemite Sharifi clan explains the importance of the Huweitat clan as one of the pillars of the Arab revolt.
10. http://www.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=70192#.Uw23r8tWHhx
11. Ibid.
12. Reported by Nadav Shragai, in “The Fabricated Palestinian History,” Israel Hayom, February 7, 2014, based inter alia on an interview with Professor Israeli, http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=15323
13. Ibid.
14. http://rslissak.com/content/responding-palestinian-rewriting-history
15. Lissak, op. cit., at chapter 5.
16. Shragai, “The Fabricated Palestinian History.”
17. Arie Perlman, “The Origin of Palestinian Arabs,” (Hebrew), http://www.faz.co.il/story_2469. See also http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Features/The-lost-Palestinian-Jews, describing the research of historian Zvi Misinai.
18. http://jcpa.org/article/egyptian-emigres-in-the-levant-of-the-19th-and-20th-centuries/ February 11, 2013
19. Al-Hekma TV (Egypt) http://www.memritv.org/clipen/3389.htm
20. Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Oct. 1947), pp. 119-134, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press http://www.jstor.org/stable/1453037
21. See Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, “The Populations of our Land” (1932) (Hebrew) – “Yesodot” Library No. 14. See also Zvi Misinai, quoted in “The Lost Palestinian JewsJerusalem Post, August 20, 2009, http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Features/The-lost-Palestinian-Jews. In a separate interview Misinai refers to the fact that the Erekat family from Abu Dis is well aware of its own Jewish roots – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs0-RGJ_CFA.

About Amb. Alan Baker

Amb. Alan Baker, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel's ambassador to Canada.