‘From the river to the sea’: What does the Palestinian slogan really mean?

A slogan calling for freedom from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea has drawn scrutiny after pro-Palestinian demonstrators across the Western world were met with attempts to curtail its use.

From Beirut to London, from Tunis to Rome, calls for a ceasefire ending Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza were interspersed with the slogan: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

To the crowds waving Palestinian flags, the chant reverberating across the globe expresses the desire for freedom from oppression across the historical land of Palestine. But for Israel and its backers, who label the phrase as pro-Hamas, it is a veiled call to violence that bears an anti-Semitic charge.

The United Kingdom’s Labour Party on Monday suspended Member of Parliament Andy McDonald for using the phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech at a pro-Palestinian rally.

Earlier this month, Home Secretary Suella Braverman described pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “hate marches” and warned that the slogan should be interpreted as an indication of a violent desire for the elimination of Israel.

The Football Association in the UK has banned players from using the slogan on their private social media accounts.

Austrian police took a similar stance, banning a pro-Palestine protest on the basis of the chant and claiming that the slogan, originally formulated by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had been adopted by the armed group Hamas. German authorities declared the slogan forbidden and indictable and called on schools in the capital, Berlin, to ban the use of keffiyehs, the Palestinian scarf.

What are the origins of the slogan?

Upon its creation by diaspora Palestinians in 1964 under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, the PLO called for the establishment of a single state that extend from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea to encompass its historic territories.

The debate over partition predates the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. A plan put forward a year earlier by the United Nations to divide the territory into a Jewish state – occupying 62 percent of the former British mandate – and a separate Palestinian state was rejected by Arab leaders at the time.

More than 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in what became known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.

The PLO leadership later accepted the prospect of a two-state solution, but the failure of the Oslo peace process in 1993 and of United States attempts to broker a final deal at Camp David in 2000 leading up to a second Intifada, the mass Palestinian uprising, have since resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

What does it mean?

To Palestinian and Israeli observers alike, different interpretations over the meaning of the slogan hang on the term “free”.

Nimer Sultany, a lecturer in law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, said the adjective expresses “the need for equality for all inhabitants of historic Palestine”.

“Those who support apartheid and Jewish supremacy will find the egalitarian chant objectionable,” Sultany, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, told Al Jazeera.

Freedom here refers to the fact that Palestinians have been denied the realisation of their right to self-determination since Britain granted the Jews the right to establish a national homeland in Palestine through the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

“This continues to be the crux of the problem: the ongoing denial of Palestinians to live in equality, freedom and dignity like everyone else,” Sultany said.


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