From The River To The Sea: The True History Of A Famous Slogan For Palestine

The size and spirit of recent Palestine solidarity demonstrations across Britain has shocked our rulers and sent them into a frenzy. The air is thick with calls to ban such demonstrations, or crack down on their slogans and chant. Adam Johannes looks at the history of one of the movement’s most well known slogans, its call for a one state solution and its aspirations for lasting peace.


Source >> Voice Wales

The home secretary Suella Braverman has recently picked up on the popular chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. 

She falsely claims that it is a “staple of antisemitic discourse” that “causes alarm not just to Jews but to all decent people”. It is neither of those things – it is what it says, a demand for the liberation of all Palestinians across the whole historic territory of Palestine.

But Braverman does have a point when she says the slogan “was dropped by mainstream organisations after Israel and the PLO made peace with the 1993 Oslo Accords”. It comes from an earlier period of Palestinian struggle, and reflects an early aspiration of the movement. And that aspiration for just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine is coming back today.

“From the river to the sea” is a recognition that apartheid began in 1948 when Israel was created through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. It is no call for genocide. To call for the destruction of Israel as an apartheid state is not a call for the destruction of Jews living there, any more than the call for the destruction of apartheid in South Africa was a call for the destruction of white people.

The PLO: One State for Arabs and Jews

Historically the slogan “from the river to the sea” dates at least as far back as the 1960s when the Palestinian resistance was led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), a secular coalition of Palestinian nationalist and leftist parties.

In the late 1960s, the PLO put forward a visionary idea of Arab-Jewish coexistence in one democracy, arguing for Israel and the Occupied Territories to become “one secular, democratic state of Palestine” based on one person, one vote, where Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians would enjoy full equality.

In 1969 the PLO had formally declared its goal “to establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews”. The idea was revolutionary at the time, an implicit challenge to the Arab regimes in the region that were neither free nor democratic. It was also revolutionary in making an offer to share the land as equal citizens with the people who had driven the Palestinians from their land and placed them under military occupation.

That year, Fatah, the leading political party in the PLO, would declare that it “is not fighting against the Jews as an ethnic and religious community. It is fighting against Israel, an expression of colonialism based on a racist, expansionist theocratic system, an expression of Zionism and of colonialism… Fatah solemnly proclaims that the final objective of its struggle is the restoration of the independent, democratic Palestinian state, in which all citizens, whatever their faith, will enjoy equal rights.”

An anthology of Fatah’s statements and articles published in Europe in 1970, The Palestinian Revolution and the Jews, included a startling statement: “What is new is that exiled non-Jewish Arabs, expelled from their homes and driven from their homeland by Jewish settlers in Palestine can still … call for a state which brings together the former victims and their former aggressors and persecutors. This idea is revolutionary.”

In 1974, Yasser Arafat, PLO leader, in his famous speech to the UN General Assembly would once again offer a vision of Israel and the Occupied Territories transcended by Arab-Jewish coexistence in a shared democracy from the river to the sea,

“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand … Is not revolution the making real of dreams and hopes? So let us work together that my dream may be fulfilled, that I may return with my people out of exile, there in Palestine to live with this Jewish freedom fighter and his partners, with this Arab priest and his brothers, in one democratic State where Christian, Jew and Moslem live in justice, equality, fraternity and progress.”

The Two State Solution

However soon afterwards the PLO began to abandon the vision. The idea of Palestine-Israel becoming one state had found little uptake from Israeli Jews, except tiny socialist groups like Matzpen, and the PLO could neither build the power, nor develop the political strategy to achieve their goal.

Their call for the dismantling Israel and the occupation as a political entity, and replacing it with a shared democracy, was systematically misrepresented in Israel and the West as a call for genocide and “driving the Jews into the sea”. This turned reality on its head. It was Palestinians who were being relentlessly driven off their land over decades, turned into refugees, confined to ever smaller enclaves of land, dominated by Israel.

From the mid-1970s there was a slow abandonment of a one state perspective, culminating in the PLO in 1988 effectively accepting a “two state solution” and “recognising” Israel. The revolutionary goal of liberating all of historic Palestine from racism from the river to the sea, and establishing a shared democracy for Arabs and Jews, would be replaced by a more limited goal of building a Palestinian mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This would amount to less than a quarter of historic Palestine.

The new goal also politically divided the Palestinian struggle, with little place in the fight for a mini-state of Palestine for the struggles of Palestinian refugees to return home, or of Palestinians in Israel seeking equal citizenship. It muddied the clarity of the political argument. Before, the Palestinian struggle had been defined clearly as an anti-racist struggle: for equal rights, against an apartheid state.

The Rise of Hamas

With the decline of the PLO, Hamas, an Islamist party, would rise to prominence by being seen as a party of resistance to the occupation. Formally committed to the liberation of all historic Palestine, Hamas originally spoke of Palestine-Israel becoming one Muslim state, but also have been unable to build the power, or develop the political strategy, to achieve their goal, and in reality have more pragmatic and modest goals.

For almost 20 years Hamas has repeatedly offered Israel a peace process and effectively a two state solution, based on an Israeli military withdrawal to its 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza, with a ten year truce to negotiate other outstanding issues, such as the right of return for refugees.

The movement has also long abandoned the reactionary rhetoric towards Jews found in its earliest stages. For example, during Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza in 2014, their then leader, Khaled Mashal, would say:

“We are not fanatics, we are not fundamentalists. We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers … I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and the Arabs and non-Arabs. However, I do not coexist with the occupiers.”

That is to say Hamas will accept a Jewish presence in historic Palestine, but not one based on occupation and apartheid towards Palestinians. Any argument that Israeli Jews face a threat of genocide from any Palestinian faction, whether the PLO or Hamas, is patently absurd: Palestinians are poorly armed facing a nuclear-armed state with one of the most powerful militaries in the world. They have no military capacity to wipe out Israel, but Israel has the military capacity to wipe out Gaza.

In the face of Israel’s apartheid from the river to the sea, and rejection of any viable two state solution, the old perspective of Arab-Jewish coexistence in one democracy has been making a comeback.

The Apartheid State Today

In 2021, B’Tselem, the main Israeli-Jewish human rights organisation monitoring the Occupied Territories described Palestine-Israel as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This is apartheid. More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule.”

The same year, Human Rights Watch released an explosive report arguing the “threshold” had been crossed and Palestine-Israel was now apartheid based on an overarching policy to “maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians”. For the first time in its history, the world’s leading human rights organisation, directly accused the Israeli state of the crime of apartheid and crimes against humanity.

A year later in 2022, Amnesty International released a report characterising Palestine-Israel as apartheid, arguing that “Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights.” This covered not only Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel itself, but also Palestinians in the refugee camps and diaspora prevented from returning home. Amnesty called for an arms embargo and investigation by the International Criminal Court into Israel’s crime of apartheid.

All three reports argued that while the methods of racist domination vary in the different parts of historic Palestine, they were nevertheless each part of one single system of apartheid imposed by Israel on the Palestinians from the river to the sea.

How did Palestine become Unfree?

In 1948, the violent birth of the state of Israel saw around 80 per cent of its native Palestinian population suffer forced expulsion and exclusion from the land where their ancestors had lived for generations in order to constitute the new Jewish-majority state in an Arab-majority land.

Almost overnight 750,000 Palestinians would become refugees in the Nakba, remaining one of the largest and most consistent refugee populations in the world. 

Israel would then demolish over 400 Palestinian villages to erase the memory of another society that had flourished in the land for centuries, followed by the swift passing of two sets of apartheid laws.

The first set of laws aimed to stop the Palestinian refugees ever returning to what was now Israel, and to seize their land and properties.

For over 75 years, Israel has refused to implement its human rights obligations to the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants denying their right of return to their homeland.

In contrast, 73 years ago Israel passed its “law of return” giving anyone Jewish the right to move to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. This means that somebody Jewish born in Europe whose family lived for generations in Europe can “return” to Israel and acquire citizenship, but a Palestinian refugee born in what is now Israel who still has the title deeds showing legal ownership of their home in Israel and door keys – that refugee cannot return. Palestinians regard this as profoundly racist.

The second set of laws aimed to turn the remnant of the native Palestinian population into third class citizens as non-Jews in what was now defined as a Jewish state rather than a state of all its citizens. Palestinian citizens of Israel, denied true equal citizenship, currently constitute around one fifth of Israel’s population.

During the 1967 Six Days War, the remainder of Palestine – East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza – became subject to an illegal Israeli military occupation.

Almost two decades ago in Gaza this would be intensified into a brutal land, sea and air blockade by Israel and Egypt, this collective punishment was backed by the West. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, the majority of its people refugees and half children. Some 96 per cent of its water has been made unfit for human consumption by the blockade that causes the highest youth unemployment rate in the world.

The Unity of Palestinian Resistance

When we chant “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” we recognise then three dimensions to Israel’s apartheid and its racist systems, and how they oppress Palestinians:

1. as a people subject to a military occupation and siege in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

2. as third class Palestinian citizens of Israel in a state that denies them true equal citizenship with Jewish citizens of Israel.

3. as refugees and a diaspora denied their legitimate rights to return home.

Many Western liberals arrogantly reduce the Palestinian struggle to the 1967 military occupation. The struggle for the refugees to return home and the struggle of the Palestinian minority in Israel for equal citizenship does not exist for them. But it still exists for Palestinians.

When we witness “from the river to the sea” chanted during protests, we witness a collective demand for a future rooted in solidarity. This slogan is not an affirmation of exclusion or a declaration of aggression toward any group. Rather, it is an affirmation of the inclusive vision that lies at the heart of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. 

It rejects the status quo of occupation, discrimination, and oppression that has persisted for far too long. It envisions a future where Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live side by side, united by their shared humanity and a commitment to justice.

*Protests for Palestine will take place this Saturday 28th October in Newport (12noon, Westgate Hotel), in London (12noon, Victoria Embankment) and elsewhere. Click for more info.

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