‘From the river to the sea’: Why a chant for the freedom of an occupied people became so provocative
The slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is frequently heard at pro-Palestinian rallies and protests worldwide.
At first glance, one might wonder why anyone would object to a defiant call for an end to the decades-long oppression and occupation of Palestine. However, this simple chant has recently become a subject of debate regarding its interpretation, which many, including Jewish groups, claim is antisemitic.
In the midst of the many bans on pro-Palestinian marches, which include restrictions on waving the country’s flag, wearing traditional keffiyeh, and even uttering the simple phrase “free Palestine” in Europe, the chant is becoming increasingly targeted by regulations.
In Vienna, authorities banned a pro-Palestinian demonstration earlier this month, just before it was set to begin, because the “from the river to sea” slogan was included in their online invitations.
What started as a call to end an apartheid-like system in Israel and Palestine, is now conflated with being equal with antisemitism and a call for the destruction of the state of Israel as well as the Jewish population in the region by the Western authorities.
Later, the Austrian police retracted their policy and said, “According to current jurisprudence, the sentence ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ does not constitute incitement to hatred.”
However, this is only one such instance.
Public prosecutors in the German capital Berlin say the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a call for the erasure of Israel, and have moved to make its utterance a criminal offence.
In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman made a public declaration in which she expressed her belief that law enforcement should step in, indicating that the chant conveys an “expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world”.
“It is not just explicit pro-Hamas symbols and chants that are cause for concern. I would encourage police to consider whether chants such as ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world and whether its use in certain contexts may amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence.”
But what does this chant actually mean?
The origins of the phrase go back to the 1940s. The river the chant refers to is the Jordan River which lies to the east of the West Bank and Israel while the sea is the Mediterranean Sea, on the west. The area in between consists of 7 million Palestinians who live under Israeli rule.
The entire land between the river and the sea used to be historically Palestine.
Upon the conclusion of the British Empire’s mandate over historic Palestine, the United Nations put forth a proposal to divide the region into separate Jewish and Palestinian states. The plan, which saw 62 per cent of land going under Israeli control, was rejected by Arab leaders.
Once the British left, the Nakba, or “catastrophe” took place that resulted in more than 700,000 Palestinians being displaced. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed with the aim of representing the Palestinian people and their national aspirations.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza and annexed East Jerusalem.
By the 1970s, the PLO changed their stance and by 1988 officially accepted the two-state solution with 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital of Palestine.
However, Israel’s stance towards the two-state solution remains unclear. On one hand, it has said a Palestinian state must be demilitarised so as not to threaten Israel, therefore continuing their military occupation of Palestinian territories.
On the other, the government has claimed the entire land as “exclusively” Israeli. “The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” the current Israeli PM Netanyahu has said.
The proponents of the slogan argue that currently, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and West Bank as well as in Israeli territory are under Israeli control and systematic discrimination which many have called an apartheid.
“There is today in the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967 a deeply discriminatory dual legal and political system that privileges the 700,000 Israeli Jewish settlers living in the 300 illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” said the UN Special Rapporteur in 2022.
“Living in the same geographic space, but separated by walls, checkpoints, roads and an entrenched military presence, are more than three million Palestinians [in the West Bank], who are without rights, living under an oppressive rule of institutional discrimination and without a path to a genuine Palestinian state that the world has long promised is their right.
“Another two million [now 2.3m] Palestinians live in Gaza, described regularly as an ‘open-air prison’, without adequate access to power, water or health, with a collapsing economy and with no ability to freely travel to the rest of Palestine or the outside world,” the special rapporteur added.
On the other hand, Nearly half a million Jewish settlers reside in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, despite the fact that international law deems settlements on occupied territory to be illegal.
While the Israeli army controls these areas, Palestinians, in both Gaza and the West Bank, have no democratic right to the state that controls their lives.
Furthermore, the bias, the displacement, the suppression of opposing voices, and the loss of life and injuries continue to befall Palestinians living in Israeli territory as well. They all constitute elements of a system intentionally structured to favour Jewish Israelis while adversely affecting Palestinians.
The phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is just that: a call for all seven million oppressed Palestinians — across the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranian Sea — to be finally liberated from all forms of occupation.