‘From the river to the ocean’ – a Palestinian historian explores the which means and intent of scrutinized slogan

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‘From the river to the ocean’ – a Palestinian historian explores the which means and intent of scrutinized slogan

What does the decision “From the river to the ocean, Palestine might be free” imply to Palestinians who say it? And why do they hold utilizing the slogan regardless of the controversy that surrounds its use?

As each a scholar of Palestinian historical past and somebody from the Palestinian diaspora, I’ve noticed the decades-old phrase acquire new life – and scrutiny – within the large pro-Palestinian marches within the U.S. and world wide which have occurred through the Israeli bombing marketing campaign within the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

Professional-Israel teams, together with the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, have labeled the phrase “antisemitic.” It has even led to a uncommon censure of Home Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the one Palestinian-American member of Congress, for utilizing the phrase.

However to Tlaib, and numerous others, the phrase isn’t antisemitic in any respect. Quite, it’s, in Tlaib’s phrases, “an aspirational name for freedom, human rights and peaceable coexistence.”

I can’t converse to what’s within the coronary heart of each one who makes use of the phrase. However I can converse to what the phrase has meant to varied teams of Palestinians all through historical past, and the intent behind most individuals who use it right now.

Merely put, the vast majority of Palestinians who use this phrase accomplish that as a result of they imagine that, in 10 quick phrases, it sums up their private ties, their nationwide rights and their imaginative and prescient for the land they name Palestine. And whereas makes an attempt to police the slogan’s use could come from a spot of real concern, there’s a danger that tarring the slogan as antisemitic – and due to this fact past the pale – faucets into an extended historical past of makes an attempt to silence Palestinian voices.

An expression of private ties

One motive for the phrase’s attraction is that it speaks to Palestinians’ deep private ties to the land. They’ve lengthy recognized themselves – and each other – by the city or village in Palestine from which they got here.

A 1902 map of Palestine.
The Print Collector/Getty Photos

And people locations stretched throughout the land, from Jericho and Safed close to the Jordan River within the east, to Jaffa and Haifa on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea within the west.

These deeply private ties have been handed down over generations by way of clothes, delicacies and refined variations in Arabic dialects which might be particular to areas inside Palestine.

And people ties proceed right now. Kids and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees typically really feel a private connection to the precise locations their ancestors hailed from.

A requirement for nationwide rights

However the phrase is just not merely a reference to geography. It’s political.

“From the river to the ocean” additionally seeks to reaffirm Palestinians’ nationwide rights over their homeland and a want for a unified Palestine to kind the idea of an impartial state.

When Palestine was beneath British colonial rule from 1917 to 1948, its Arab inhabitants objected strongly to partition proposals advocated by British and Zionist pursuits. That’s as a result of, buried deep within the proposals, have been stipulations that might have compelled a whole bunch of 1000’s of Palestinian Arabs off their ancestral lands.

In 1946, the Delegation of Arab Governments proposed as an alternative a “unitary state” with a “democratic structure” that might assure “freedom of spiritual follow” for all and would acknowledge “the best of Jews to make use of the Hebrew language as a second official language.”

The next 12 months, the United Nations as an alternative accepted a partition plan for Palestine, which might have compelled 500,000 Palestinian Arabs dwelling within the proposed Jewish state to select between dwelling as a minority in their very own nation or leaving.

It’s on this context that the decision for a unified, impartial Palestine emerges, in keeping with Arabic scholar Elliott Colla.

Through the 1948 struggle that led to the formation of the state of Israel, round 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or have been expelled from their villages and cities. By the top of the struggle, Palestine was cut up into three: 78% of the land turned a part of the Jewish state of Israel, whereas the rest fell beneath Jordanian or Egyptian rule.

Palestinian refugees believed they’d a proper to return to their houses within the new state of Israel. Israeli leaders, looking for to take care of the state’s Jewish majority, sought to have the refugees resettled distant. In the meantime, a story emerged within the West within the Fifties claiming that Palestinians’ political claims have been invalid.

Future imaginative and prescient

Palestinians needed to discover a solution to each assert their nationwide rights and lay out another imaginative and prescient for peace. After Israel occupied the West Financial institution, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip within the 1967 Arab-Israeli Struggle, the decision for a free Palestine “from the river to the ocean” began to acquire traction amongst those that believed that each one the land ought to be returned to the Palestinians.

Nevertheless it quickly additionally got here to signify the imaginative and prescient of a secular democratic state with equality for all.

In 1969, the Palestinian Nationwide Council, the very best decision-making physique of the Palestinians in exile, formally referred to as for a “Palestinian democratic state” that might be “freed from all types of spiritual and social discrimination.”

This remained a preferred imaginative and prescient amongst Palestinians, at the same time as a few of their leaders inched towards the thought of creating a truncated Palestinian state alongside Israel within the West Financial institution, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Many Palestinians have been skeptical of this two-state resolution. For refugees exiled since 1948, a two-state resolution wouldn’t enable them to return to their cities and villages in Israel. Some Palestinian residents of Israel feared {that a} two-state resolution would depart them much more remoted as an Arab minority in a Jewish state.

Even Palestinians within the West Financial institution and Gaza Strip – those that stood probably the most to realize from a two-state resolution – have been lukewarm to the thought. A 1986 ballot discovered that 78% of respondents “supported the institution of a democratic-secular Palestinian state encompassing all of Palestine,” whereas solely 17% supported two states.

That helps explains why the decision for a free Palestine “from the river to the ocean” turned widespread within the protest chants of the First Intifada, or Palestinian rebellion, from 1987 to 1992.

Notably, Hamas, an Islamist celebration based in 1987, didn’t initially use “from the river to the ocean,” seemingly as a result of phrase’s long-standing ties to Palestinian secular nationalism.

Two states or one?

The 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords led many to imagine {that a} two-state resolution was simply across the nook.

However as hopes for a two-state resolution dimmed, some Palestinians returned to the thought of a single, democratic state from the river to the ocean.

In the meantime, Hamas picked up the slogan, including the phrase “from the river to the ocean” to its 2017 revised constitution. The language was a part of Hamas’ broader efforts to realize legitimacy on the expense of its secular rival, Fatah, which was seen by many as having failed the Palestinian individuals.

At present, broad swaths of Palestinians nonetheless favor the thought of equality. A 2022 ballot discovered robust assist amongst Palestinians for the thought of a single state with equal rights for all.

Offensive phrase?

Maybe coloured by Hamas’ use of the phrase, some have claimed it’s a genocidal name – the implication being that the slogan’s finish is asking for Palestine to be “free from Jews.” It’s comprehensible the place such fears come from, given the Hamas assaults on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 individuals, in keeping with the Israeli international ministry.

However the Arabic unique, “Filastin hurra,” means liberated Palestine. “Free from” could be a unique Arabic phrase altogether.

Different critics of the slogan insist that by denying Israel’s proper to exist as a Jewish state, the phrase itself is antisemitic. Below such considering, protesters ought to as an alternative be calling for a Palestinian state that exists alongside Israel – and never one which replaces it.

However this could seemingly ignore the present actuality. There’s robust scholarly consensus {that a} two-state resolution is not viable. They argue that the extent of settlement constructing within the West Financial institution and the financial circumstances in Gaza have eaten away on the cohesion and viability of any envisioned Palestinian state.

Additional demonization

There’s one other argument towards the slogan’s use: That whereas not antisemitic in itself, the truth that some Jewish individuals see it that manner – and as such see it as a menace – is sufficient for individuals to desert its use.

However such an argument would, I contend, privilege the sentiments of 1 group over that of one other. And it dangers additional demonizing and silencing Palestinian voices within the West.

A woman in a black and white scarf speaks into a microphone
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaks throughout an illustration calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.
AP Picture/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

During the last month, Europe has seen what pro-Palestine advocates describe as an “unprecedented crackdown” on their activism. In the meantime, individuals throughout the U.S. are reporting widespread discrimination, retaliation and punishment for his or her pro-Palestinian views.

On Nov. 14, George Washington College suspended the scholar group College students for Justice in Palestine, partially as a result of the group projected the slogan “Free Palestine From the River to the Sea” on the campus library.

Precept, not platform

None of that is to say that the phrase “From the river to the ocean, Palestine might be free” doesn’t have a number of interpretations.

Palestinians themselves are divided over the precise political consequence they want to see of their homeland.

However that misses the purpose. Most Palestinians utilizing this chant don’t see it as advocating for a selected political platform or as belonging to a selected political group. Quite, the vast majority of individuals utilizing the phrase see it as a principled imaginative and prescient of freedom and coexistence.




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