Picture: Alisdare Hickson / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Taken on October 9, 2023 – A Prayer for Palestinian Children. Protesters carrying various placards during a demonstration in central London protesting against Israel’s military operations in Gaza during the 2023 Israel-Hamas war, Israeli apartheid, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians generally and the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
By Maha Nassar
I cannot speak to what is in the heart of every person who uses the phrase, but I can speak to what the phrase has meant to various groups of Palestinians throughout history, and the intent behind most people who use it today.
What does the call “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” mean to Palestinians who say it? And why do they keep using the slogan despite the controversy that surrounds its use?
As both a scholar of Palestinian history and someone from the Palestinian diaspora, I have observed the decades-old phrase gain new life — and scrutiny — in the massive pro-Palestinian marches in the US and around the world that have occurred during the Israeli bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.
Pro-Israel groups, including the US-based Anti-Defamation League, have labelled the phrase “antisemitic”. It has even led to a rare censure of House Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, for using the phrase.
Simply put, the majority of Palestinians who use this phrase do so because they believe that, in 10 short words, it sums up their personal ties, their national rights, and their vision for the land they call Palestine.
But to Tlaib, and countless others, the phrase isn’t antisemitic at all. Rather, it is, in Tlaib’s words, “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence”.
I cannot speak to what is in the heart of every person who uses the phrase. But I can speak to what the phrase has meant to various groups of Palestinians throughout history, and the intent behind most people who use it today.
Simply put, the majority of Palestinians who use this phrase do so because they believe that, in 10 short words, it sums up their personal ties, their national rights, and their vision for the land they call Palestine. And while attempts to police the slogan’s use may come from a place of genuine concern, there is a risk that tarring the slogan as antisemitic — and therefore beyond the pale — taps into a longer history of attempts to silence Palestinian voices.
An Expression of Personal Ties
One reason for the phrase’s appeal is that it speaks to Palestinians’ deep personal ties to the land. They have long identified themselves — and one another — by the town or village in Palestine from which they came.
And those places stretched across the land, from Jericho and Safed near the Jordan River in the east, to Jaffa and Haifa on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
These deeply personal ties were passed down over generations through clothing, cuisine, and subtle differences in Arabic dialects that are specific to locations within Palestine.
And those ties continue today. Children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees often feel a personal connection to the specific places their ancestors hailed from.
A Demand for National Rights
But the phrase is not simply a reference to geography. It’s political.
“From the river to the sea” also seeks to reaffirm Palestinians’ national rights over their homeland and a desire for a unified Palestine to form the basis of an independent state.
When Palestine was under British colonial rule from 1917 to 1948, its Arab inhabitants objected strongly to partition proposals advocated by British and Zionist interests. That’s because, buried deep in the proposals, were stipulations that would have forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs off their ancestral lands.
Palestinians had to find a way to both assert their national rights and lay out an alternative vision for peace.
In 1946, the Delegation of Arab Governments proposed instead a “unitary state” with a “democratic constitution” that would guarantee “freedom of religious practice” for all and would recognise “the right of Jews to employ the Hebrew language as a second official language”.
The following year, the United Nations instead approved a partition plan for Palestine, which would have forced 500,000 Palestinian Arabs living in the proposed Jewish state to choose between living as a minority in their own country or leaving.
It’s in this context that the call for a unified, independent Palestine emerges, according to Arabic scholar Elliott Colla.
During the 1948 war that led to the formation of the state of Israel, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their villages and towns. By the end of the war, Palestine was split into three: 78 percent of the land became part of the Jewish state of Israel, while the remainder fell under Jordanian or Egyptian rule.
Palestinian refugees believed they had a right to return to their homes in the new state of Israel. Israeli leaders, seeking to maintain the state’s Jewish majority, sought to have the refugees resettled far away. Meanwhile, a narrative emerged in the West in the 1950s claiming that Palestinians’ political claims were invalid.
Palestinians had to find a way to both assert their national rights and lay out an alternative vision for peace. After Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the call for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” started to gain traction among those who believed that all the land should be returned to the Palestinians.
But it soon also came to represent the vision of a secular democratic state with equality for all.
In 1969, the Palestinian National Council, the highest decision-making body of the Palestinians in exile, formally called for a “Palestinian democratic state” that would be “free of all forms of religious and social discrimination”.
A 1986 poll found that 78 percent of respondents “supported the establishment of a democratic-secular Palestinian state encompassing all of Palestine,” while only 17 percent supported two states.
This remained a popular vision among Palestinians, even as some of their leaders inched toward the idea of establishing a truncated Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.
Many Palestinians were sceptical of this two-state solution. For refugees exiled since 1948, a two-state solution would not allow them to return to their towns and villages in Israel. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel feared that a two-state solution would leave them even more isolated as an Arab minority in a Jewish state.
Even Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — those who stood the most to gain from a two-state solution — were lukewarm to the idea. A 1986 poll found that 78 percent of respondents “supported the establishment of a democratic-secular Palestinian state encompassing all of Palestine,” while only 17 percent supported two states.
That helps explains why the call for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” became popular in the protest chants of the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1992.
Notably, Hamas, an Islamist party founded in 1987, did not initially use “from the river to the sea”, likely due to the phrase’s long-standing ties to Palestinian secular nationalism.
Two States or One?
The 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords led many to believe that a two-state solution was just around the corner.
But as hopes for a two-state solution dimmed, some Palestinians returned to the idea of a single, democratic state from the river to the sea.
Meanwhile, Hamas picked up the slogan, adding the phrase “from the river to the sea” to its 2017 revised charter. The language was part of Hamas’ broader efforts to gain legitimacy at the expense of its secular rival, Fatah, which was seen by many as having failed the Palestinian people.
Today, broad swaths of Palestinians still favour the idea of equality. A 2022 poll found strong support among Palestinians for the idea of a single state with equal rights for all.
Perhaps coloured by Hamas’ use of the phrase, some have claimed it is a genocidal call — the implication being that the slogan’s end is calling for Palestine to be “free from Jews”. It’s understandable where such fears come from, given the Hamas attacks on October 7 that killed 1,200 people, according to the Israeli foreign ministry.
But the Arabic original, “Filastin hurra”, means liberated Palestine. “Free from” would be a different Arabic word altogether.
Other critics of the slogan insist that by denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, the phrase itself is antisemitic. Under such thinking, protesters should instead be calling for a Palestinian state that exists alongside Israel — and not one that replaces it.
But this would seemingly ignore the current reality. There is strong scholarly consensus that a two-state solution is no longer viable. They argue that the extent of settlement building in the West Bank and the economic conditions in Gaza have eaten away at the cohesion and viability of any envisioned Palestinian state.
There is another argument against the slogan’s use: That while not antisemitic in itself, the fact that some Jewish people see it that way — and as such see it as a threat — is enough for people to abandon its use.
But such an argument would, I contend, privilege the feelings of one group over that of another. And it risks further demonising and silencing Palestinian voices in the West.
Over the last month, Europe has seen what pro-Palestine advocates describe as an “unprecedented crackdown” on their activism. Meanwhile, people across the US are reporting widespread discrimination, retaliation, and punishment for their pro-Palestinian views.
On November 14, George Washington University suspended the student group Students for Justice in Palestine, in part because the group projected the slogan “Free Palestine From the River to the Sea” on the campus library.
Principle, Not Platform
None of this is to say that the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” doesn’t have multiple interpretations.
Palestinians themselves are divided over the specific political outcome they wish to see in their homeland.
But that misses the point. Most Palestinians using this chant do not see it as advocating for a specific political platform or as belonging to a specific political group. Rather, the majority of people using the phrase see it as a principled vision of freedom and co-existence.
Maha Nassar is an associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona and the author of Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World.
This article was published on Common Dreams