What’s in a name? Hebrew origins of Palestinian Arab towns in Judea-Samaria

“The Peoples of Our Land in 1932” states that west of the Jordan River, 277 villages and sites had names that were similar to or the same as Jewish villages in these locations during Second Temple times.

Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron on Aug. 28, 2015. Cave of the Patriarchs with vehicles of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Credit: Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons.
Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron on Aug. 28, 2015. Cave of the Patriarchs with vehicles of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Credit: Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons.
Lee Bender

With the approval of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which declares as illegal any Israeli presence beyond the 1967 so-called Green Line, including the Old City of Jerusalem, its Temple Mount (Judaism’s holiest site) and the Mount of Olives cemetery where Jews have been burying their dead for more than 3,000 years, and an earlier UNESCO resolution disassociating the Jewish people from Jerusalem and other holy sites, one wonders how the United Nations and UNESCO ambassadors involved in these decisions can keep a straight face.

Given the recorded history of that land from the Bible and other recognized sources, a well-known phrase from Shakespeare is instructive: “What’s in a name?” When it comes to Eretz Yisrael, plenty. The place names verify the absurdity of accusations that Jews are colonizers, strangers to this land and “occupiers of” these areas. It is equally absurd to claim that the Arabs are the indigenous peoples of Israel because virtually all the place names used by local Arabs are non-Arabic in origin, and derived either from biblical Hebrew names or from later Greek or Roman names.

The Romans renamed the entire region Syria-Palestina (named for the Philistines and Assyrians) after they destroyed the Second Temple so as to erase its Jewish roots. This was later shortened to Palestina, and it eventually became known as Palestine. As noted scholar Daniel Pipes points out: “Palestine (Arabic: Filastin) as a political unit only came into use as a Zionist triumph when imposed by the British occupiers following the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Palestinians (Arabic: Filastiniyun) also came into use only in the twentieth century” (“Is There A Palestinian People? Can It Be Defeated?” 1-10-17, Middle East Forum blog).

The region that the international community commonly and reflexively refers to as the “West Bank” was known for three millennia as Judea and Samaria (in Hebrew, Yehuda and Shomron). Indeed, Jews derive the very name of their religion and peoplehood from the name Yehuda, who was the fourth son of Jacob and whose tribe settled in that region. Yet these ancient names have not been exclusively used by Jewish “settlers.” In fact, the United Nations itself, in General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), referred to the region as Judea and Samaria, as do all maps published before 1948.

It was only in 1950 that Jordan renamed it the “West Bank” after illegally occupying the territory in the armistice following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The Jordanian name change distinguished the area from the rest of Jordan, and “West Bank” also hid the Jewish connection. The Israelis drove the attacking Jordanians out of the territory in 1967.

Israel’s second president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was a scholar who wrote the book, The Peoples of Our Land in 1932. In it, he states that west of the Jordan River, 277 villages and sites—almost two-thirds of all sites—had names that were similar to or the same as Jewish villages in these locations during Second Temple times.

Moreover, one-quarter of the 584 Arab localities in Israel and beyond the Green Line have ancient biblical names. For example, Sakhnin was a Jewish town during the Talmudic era, and Beit Lechem is the Hebrew name for the biblical city of Bethlehem (“Ancient Place Names in Israel” by Daniela Santus in Proceedings of the Conference, The Cultural Turn in Geography, 18-20th of September 2003–Gorizia Campus, Part II: Landscape Construction and Cultural Identity).

Hebron (Arabic: al-Khalil; Hebrew: Chevron, which means “friend”) in the Judean Mountains is the second-largest city under Palestinian Arab control after Gaza, and it is one of the four Jewish holy cities (the others being Jerusalem, Tzfat and Tiberias). Most significantly, it contains Judaism’s second most holy site, the Cave of Machpelah, purchased by Abraham. It is here that Judaism’s Patriarchs and three of its Matriarchs are buried. (JewishVirtuallibrary.org). Another large Palestinian Arab city, Nablus, whose Hebrew name is Shechem, is derived from the Greek, Neopolis.

Other examples of Arab towns with names derived from the Hebrew Bible: Beit Jalla is the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, Jenin was Ein Ganim, Silwan was Shiloach, Selum was Shilo (one of the first capitals of ancient Israel), Tequa is Tekoa (the Prophet Amos’s hometown), Anata was Anatot (the Prophet Jeremiah’s hometown), Batir was Beitar, Beitin was Beit El (as named by Jacob himself), Jaba was Geva, Mukhmas is Michmash (King Saul’s fortress) and El-Jib was Giv’on (where the sun stood still).

According to Tsvi Misinai, author of Brother Shall Not Lift Sword Against Brother, many of the Arab villages and towns in the area have names that are not only not Arabic, but also rarely appear in other Arab lands. Among such names are Kafr Yasif, Kafr Kana, Kafr Yatta, Kafr Manda, Kaft Samia and others.

A closer examination reveals an additional irony: Most Arab countries bordering Israel derive their names from the Hebrew Bible. Lebanon, Levanon, means “white” in Hebrew, referring to the snow cover of the surrounding mountains. Syria, Siryon, in the Bible is the alternate name for Mount Hermon. Jordan/River Jordan (Yarden in Hebrew) takes its name from the Israelite tribe of Dan and means “descends from Dan.” Gaza, Azza in Hebrew, is mentioned in Genesis and the book of Judges with the Samson narrative.

So, to counter those who attempt to disassociate the Jews from the Land of Israel and claim that they are interlopers and colonizers, the proof is also in the pudding: the names. Use this information to make the media, academia and politicians be honest, accurate and accountable.

Lee Bender is the co-author of the book, “Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z,” author of dozens of published articles, co-founder of the website www.factsonisrael.com and co-president of the Zionist Organization of America-Greater Philadelphia Chapter.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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