Why ‘river to sea’ pro-Palestinian slogan is controversial

Image: Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa/picture alliance

Amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, “From the river to the sea” has emerged as a contentious pro-Palestinian slogan. Some maintain it’s antisemitic, while others describe it as a call for equal rights.

The Jordan River winds its way from the far northeastern tip of Israel, down through the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. Along most of its 250 kilometers (155 miles), the river forms the border between Israel and the West Bank on one side and the kingdom of Jordan on the other.

This length is almost the same as that of the combined Mediterranean coastline of Israel and the Gaza Strip to the west. The strip of land between the river in the east and the sea in the west is barely 60 kilometers wide.

Geographically, it’s quite clear that the slogan “from the river to the sea” encompasses Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The precise political message conveyed by the slogan is, however, highly contentious. At the beginning of November, it was banned by the German Interior Ministry who consider it to be a symbol of the Hamas organization.

Slogan reappears amid Israel-Hamas conflict

During the terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Islamist militant group Hamas on October 7, Israel reports, at least 1,200 people were killed and around 240 more abducted and taken hostage. Along with the subsequent Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has so far resulted in the deaths of over 11,000 Palestinians, there have been numerous solidarity marches and rallies around the world in support of both sides. Some of these demonstrations have been criticized for spreading Islamist and antisemitic propaganda.

The slogan “From the river to the sea — Palestine will be free” is often chanted at pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Abbreviated to “From the river to the sea,” it circulates widely on social media, and is even found on various items available online, including candles, flags and sweatshirts.

It is currently the subject of considerable debate — though the slogan itself has actually been around for decades. Many activists for Palestinian rights describe it as a call for peace and equality after decades in which millions of Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation. Others interpret it as a clear call for the destruction of Israel.

Where does ‘From the river to the sea’ originate?

The expression “From the river to the sea” was first used by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. In its founding charter, the PLO demanded the establishment of a single Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, decisively rejecting the UN’s 1947 partition plan for Palestine.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, the phrase was increasingly taken up by other Palestinian groups, who also used it as a call for the liberation of their territories from Israeli occupation. They included peaceful initiatives promoting Palestinian independence but also, increasingly, radical organizations such as the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas, which was founded in 1987.

Both Hamas and the PFLP are designated as terrorist organizations by the EU, the United States, Germany and other nations. Hamas prominently used the slogan around 2012, when its then leader, Khaled Mashal, declared in a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the group: “Palestine is ours, from the river to the sea and from the south to the north.”

In 2017, this statement was included in the revised charter of the terrorist organization, which also called for the violent destruction of the state of Israel. In December 2022, Hamas published the slogan again — along with a map of the region depicting a Palestinian state and no Israel.

Is the pro-Palestinian slogan peaceful or radical?

In terms of what “a free Palestine from the river to the sea” would mean for Israel’s right to exist, the slogan is ambiguous. Consequently, it can be and is used by both peaceful and radical players.

In 2021, for example, the Palestinian-US American scholar Yousef Munayyer argued that the phrase “from the river to the sea” was simply a description of the space in which Palestinians had been denied numerous rights since their expulsion in 1948 — in the occupied territories, but also in Israel itself. According to Munayyer, it expresses the desire for “a state in which Palestinians can live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them.”

Munayyer, the head of the Palestine/Israel Program at the Arab Center in Washington, wrote on X earlier this month: “There isn’t a square inch of the land between the river and the sea where Palestinians have freedom, justice and equality, and it has never been more important to emphasize this than right now.”