The language conflict over Israel and Judea-Samaria

A view of the Judean Desert
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Different language about the same geography can reflect various sides of a conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict is no different.

Different language about the same geography can reflect various sides of a conflict. Consider the use of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) as compared to Palestine. Another pair of politicized terms referring to the same geographic area is the Arabian Gulf versus Persian Gulf: use of one in place of the other may raise tempers among Iranians or Saudis and allies.
Involving territory controlled by the State of Israel, for example, is use of one or another of these terms for the same terrain: liberated, occupied or disputed territory, administered area. The political implications of each are different.
Two distinct terms are used to refer to a notable portion of disputed territory between Jews and Arabs – Judea-Samaria and West Bank. Whether unintentionally or not, the political nuance of each implies Jewish versus Arab orientation. Yehuda v’Shomron are traditional names for the rough terrain west of the Dead Sea and lower Jordan River. That tradition has extended since biblical times. Upon the 1948 Arab war upon Israel, Arabs began using the term West Bank to designate land west of the river (Transjordan is eastward).
To avoid a linguistic reminder of Transjordan’s imperialism, its leaders in 1950 changed the state’s name to Jordan. Transjordan was established in 1922 on the eastern 76.9% of the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate granted the British to establish a renewed Jewish homeland.
The West Bank, as popularly understood, denotes an area roughly equivalent in geography to Judea-Samaria. Today Judea refers to the area around Jerusalem and hills south, east and west of the city; Samaria is northward.
Archaeologists found evidence of Jewish communities in Judea-Samaria without interruption from antiquity through 1948. Some flourish again today. During the British Mandate from the early 1920’s until conquest by Transjordan’s Arabs, Jews had exercised the right to resettle. At least eight new communities grew: two north of Jerusalem, several near the Jordan River-Dead Sea juncture, others in the Hebron Hills. In ‘48, Arab forces evicted all Jews from the region thereafter called the “West Bank” by Arabs and held judenrein (empty of Jews) until 1967 when Israel regained the area. An asymmetry had arisen with many Arabs permitted by Israel to remain in areas it controlled.
The geographical equating of Judea-Samaria with the West Bank is not exact. Even during 1948-67, West Jerusalem and the corridor to the Mediterranean were not part of the West Bank, but of the Jewish state. Jerusalem and the corridor formed a wedge within the context of Judea-Samaria.

Double meaning 

The term West Bank has a cunning double meaning. In popular understanding, it refers to land west of the river held by Jordan from 1948-1967 and then administered by Israel until the Oslo negotiating process saw portions handed over to the Palestinian Authority to govern. The term West Bank in purely geographical, not political, sense may be applied to all land west of the river, ranging to the next body of water – the Mediterranean. And so, the term can refer to all of Israel today except the Golan Heights.
About 40 miles wide, the West Bank once controlled by Jordan, ran west from the Jordan River to about eleven miles short of the Mediterranean. The coastal strip is often called “Israel’s narrow waist.” Frontiers delineated by 1949 armistice lines, often called the “Green Line,” were referred to by former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban (considered dovish) as “Auschwitz borders,” meaning nearly indefensible.
The geographical west bank of the Jordan River includes all land between the river and the Mediterranean. In this context, the West Bank includes the circumscribed “West Bank” and virtually the entire State of Israel except for Negev and Golan regions.
The term Cisjordan, rarely used for western Eretz Yisrael/Palestine, faces Transjordan eastward across the famous river. The two areas comprise the Palestine Mandate allocated to the British by the League of Nations and considered by them equivalent politically if not exactly geographically with the Land of Israel. British-issued passports for the whole mandate had terminology in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Transjordan, the eastern 76.4% of the original Palestine Mandate, in 1946 was bestowed full sovereignty (as an Arab state) by the Brits. On official documents during the 1920-30s three identifying terms had been used together: Mandate of Palestine in English, the word Plishtine in Arabic, and Hebrew letters Aleph and Yud for Eretz Yisrael.
Arab ideologists today manipulate the dual meanings. The limited one is for popular consumption in America and Europe, and among Israelis of wishful thinking who accept it. The broader one is for Arab audiences. Implications are clear: a call for a West Bank Arab state may be interpreted as limited/moderate when the circumscribed definition is understood as the limit of Arab ambitions. Leaders of the anti-Israel Arab camp are frequently explicit (in Arabic, sometimes English) that their ambitions are not limited. These extreme statements are often ignored by most media.
Some observers of the Middle East understand that pervasive Arab ambitions regarding the West Bank are total and extreme, seeking Israel’s destruction. This “politicide” is euphemistically described by Arab propagandists as “replacing the Zionist entity by a secular democratic state” (ruled by Arabs). Ironically, the only democratic state in the Middle East is Israel since Lebanon was long ago weakened by Syria and the PLO.
Most Americans and other Westerners understand the name West Bank in the limited sense. Many Arabs appreciate both the limited definition and the extreme ambition.


While the name West Bank came into active discourse in the past century, Judea had its beginning about 3,500 years earlier. Genesis 29:35 relates Leah bore four sons to Jacob (whose name became Israel):
And she conceived again, and bore a son; and she said, ‘This time will I praise the Lord.’
Therefore, she called his name Judah; and she left off bearing.
The Hebrew root for the words praise and Judah is identical. Judah, Judea, Yehuda come from the same linguistic root as odeh, which means I will praise. The Hebrew word todah meaning thank you has the same root. Thus, the land named Judea and people Judeans mean something close to praise or thanks and relates to the birth of Jacob and Leah’s fourth son, as related early in Israel’s saga.
Judah became leader of one of Israel’s 12 tribes. The hilly, sometimes mountainous, desert region of Judea, encompassing Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, was allocated during Joshua’s time to followers/descendants of Judah. King David was a man of Judah, Judea. The word Jew is a short form.
Later the geographical name for the tribal region legacy of Judah became the name of the state. It occurred after King Solomon’s reign, when his united kingdom broke into Judea and Israel (Judea representing the political coalition of tribes Judah and Benjamin).
When the Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE, Judea became the name applied to all of Eretz Yisrael, the promised Land of Israel. During the Second Temple periods of the Maccabees, Hasmoneans, and Herod, the entire country was known as Yehuda, Judea.


The name Samaria also has an honorable beginning. Some 2,800 years ago, in the ninth century BCE, King Omri reigned over Israel for a dozen years. The Bible relates his first capital city was Tirza, located between ancient Shechem (alongside today’s Nablus) and the Jordan River. It was not fully suitable because although along the main east-west axis across central Israel, it was off the north-south mountain-trade route. King Omri sought a new site.
And he bought the hill Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria (I Kings 16:24).
Samaria became Israel’s capital, as Jerusalem was Judea’s. Omri was later buried in Samaria, the city he built; his son King Ahab also reigned there. When else has a king named his capital for the man from whom he purchased the land?  Usually, a king glorifies himself when naming his capital.
The site of Omri’s capital on a prominent hill near Nablus dominates the main north-south route along the land’s mountain spine west of the river. The site overlooks the Mediterranean 20 miles westward. Later the name Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew) was applied not only to the capital, but to the entire region. Samaria’s ancient capital was renamed Sebaste by King Herod 8-9 centuries after Omri. Archaeologists excavated the site, and visitors wander through remains of layers of magnificent cities.
The mountains of Samaria are highest in the land west of the Jordan River, higher than Jerusalem, anywhere in Judea or Galilee. From the hill of the ancient capital Samaria can be seen the Mediterranean, Mount Carmel above Haifa Bay and the coastal cities of Caesarea, Netanya, Herzliya, Tel Aviv. King Omri’s choice of location for his capital had clear strategic value in his day, and now.
During World War I, Ottoman Turks with German help built a railway from Damascus, Syria to the Sinai desert, with a key junction/station at ancient Samaria’s foot. In 1918, the final British military campaign in the Holy Land advanced from near Tel Aviv; an initial objective the strategic road, rail junction and height at Samaria. The British assault, horse cavalry leading, reached Samaria in one day and Tiberias further northeast, in three. Israel is a small country, and strategic terrain has had consistent value over the ages.
It was from Samaria’s heights that Iraqi forces in 1948 nearly cut the reborn diminutive State of Israel in two. The narrow waist of pre-1967 Israel beneath and in view of Samaria was less wide at its narrowest (9 miles) than New Jersey is wide (30 miles), or Manhattan Island long (13 miles).


Is it coincidental that Shemer was the man’s name who long ago sold land to King Omri for Israel’s capital? The linguistic Hebrew root means guard, preserve. Samaria, named for Shemer, geographically dominates – guards if you will – western Eretz Yisrael. Samaria is the geographical heart of the Jewish homeland. If one looks at a map and points to the country’s center of gravity, one’s finger gravitates to ancient Samaria and Shechem.
In fact, it was in the Samarian hills at Alon Moreh and Shechem, that Abraham, who began the Jewish story some 3,500 years ago, first sojourned in Eretz Yisrael, and it was near here that Israelites led by Joshua gathered after their victory over Canaanites some 3,100 years ago. Jews (the People of The Book) are people of Judea (descended from Judah), and Samaria is the heartland of Israel, and was for three millennia.
Much more is implicit in the names Judea-Samaria and West Bank than generally appreciated. If the French epigram that “pursuit of truth lies in nuance” is itself true, it behooves conscientious people to appreciate nuances of important issues.
Before 1948, books on Holy Land geography never utilized the term West Bank but referred to Judea and Samaria. A suggestion: since the Arab-oriented term West Bank is so prevalent in journalistic, political, and common use, it behooves those who would be more accurate to at minimum refer to the land in question along the lines of “West Bank – the relatively new name for what traditionally was called Judea and Samaria.”
Or better, invert the order and recast the line as “Judea and Samaria, the traditional name for what only recently has been called West Bank.”

Sign up for The Jerusalem Post Premium Plus for just $5

Upgrade your reading experience with an ad-free environment and exclusive content

Join Now >

Load more...