The Israelites (//; Hebrew: בני ישראל Bnei Yisra'el) were a confederation of Iron Age Semitic-speaking tribes of the ancient Near East, who inhabited a part of Canaan during the tribal and monarchic periods. According to the religious narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites' origin is traced back to the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham and his wife Sarah, through their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and their son Jacob who was later called Israel, whence they derive their name, with his wives Leah and Rachel and the handmaids Zilpa and Bilhah.
Modern archaeology has largely discarded the historicity of the religious narrative, with it being reframed as constituting an inspiring national myth narrative. The Israelites and their culture, according to the modern archaeological account, did not overtake the region by force, but instead branched out of the indigenous Canaanite peoples that long inhabited the Southern Levant, Syria, ancient Israel, and the Transjordan region through the development of a distinct monolatristic—later cementing as monotheistic—religion centered on Yahweh, one of the Ancient Canaanite deities. The outgrowth of Yahweh-centric belief, along with a number of cultic practices, gradually gave rise to a distinct Israelite ethnic group, setting them apart from other Canaanites.
In the Hebrew Bible the term Israelites is used interchangeably with the term Twelve Tribes of Israel. Although related, the terms Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews are not interchangeable in all instances. "Israelites" (Yisraelim) refers specifically to the direct descendants of any of the sons of the patriarch Jacob (later called Israel), and his descendants as a people are also collectively called "Israel", including converts to their faith in worship of the god of Israel, Yahweh. "Hebrews" (ʿIvrim), on the contrary, is used to denote the Israelites' immediate forebears who dwelt in the land of Canaan, the Israelites themselves, and the Israelites' ancient and modern descendants (including Jews and Samaritans). "Jews" (Yehudim) is used to denote the descendants of the Israelites who coalesced when the Tribe of Judah absorbed the remnants of various other Israelite tribes. Thus, for instance, Abraham was a Hebrew but he was not technically an Israelite nor a Jew, Jacob was both a Hebrew and the first Israelite but not a Jew, while David (as a member of the Tribe of Judah) was all three, a Hebrew, an Israelite, and a Judahite (Yehudi, Jew). A Samaritan, on the contrary, while being both a Hebrew and an Israelite, is not a Jew.
During the period of the divided monarchy "Israelites" was only used to refer to the inhabitants of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and it is only extended to cover the people of the southern Kingdom of Judah in post-exilic usage.
The Israelites are the ethnic stock from which modern Jews and Samaritans originally trace their ancestry. Modern Jews are named after and also descended from the southern Israelite Kingdom of Judah, particularly the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and partially Levi.
Finally, in Judaism, the term "Israelite" is, broadly speaking, used to refer to a lay member of the Jewish ethnoreligious group, as opposed to the priestly orders of Kohanim and Levites. In texts of Jewish law such as the Mishnah and Gemara, the term יהודי (Yehudi), meaning Jew, is rarely used, and instead the ethnonym ישראלי (Yisraeli), or Israelite, is widely used to refer to Jews. Samaritans commonly refer to themselves and to Jews collectively as Israelites, and they describe themselves as the Israelite Samaritans.