George Washington University suspended from campus in mid-November 2023 the group Students for Justice in Palestine, after students had beamed “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea” onto the university library.
The suspension came one week after Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American serving in the House, was attacked by Republicans and Democrats alike after using the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” in a video. Tlaib insisted the chant was a “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate.” She received a rare censure from Congress.
Meanwhile, millions of people — on both sides of the Atlantic — have been marching in the largest pro-Palestine demonstrations the West has ever seen. Along with specific demands that Israel end its genocidal bombing campaign in Gaza, Palestinian and proPalestine protesters have taken up similar chants as part of a broader call for Palestinian liberation.
The response has been fierce. Pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have labeled the phrase “an antisemitic slogan,” while in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party suspended Member of Parliament Andy McDonald for using the phrase in a speech at a pro-Palestine rally.
So why does anyone insist on this phrase? I’ve previously written about how these 10 short words reflect Palestinians’ intimate and ongoing ties to their specific ancestral towns and villages — towns and villages that span across Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It also sums up Palestinian opposition to colonial partition plans while laying out a decolonial vision of freedom — one based on democratic principles and equality.
By insisting on this phrase, Palestinians are standing defiantly against a much longer history of colonial erasure. For more than a century, Zionist groups and Western colonial powers have sought to erase Palestine’s Arab roots, erase Palestinian ties to the land and even erase Palestinians as a people.
For more than a century, Palestinians have resisted. The phrase itself is an act of resistance, an intentional choice to engage in the struggle over public narratives, one battle within a much longer struggle against erasure.
Given Palestine’s location at the nexus of trade and pilgrimage routes, its people have long understood themselves as part of a pluralistic society. As Palestine was integrated into Muslim empires, its native inhabitants — Muslims, Christians and Jews — gradually adopted Arabic as their language of culture and communication. After World War I, intellectuals in Palestine sought to establish an independent, democratic Arab state that would protect the rights of minorities.
But it was not to be.
In Europe, the British and French did not believe Arabs deserved independence. Meanwhile, Zionist activists maintained Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” They did not recognize the political rights of Palestine’s native Arab inhabitants, nor their ties to their lands. The various partition schemes proposed by the British, the Zionists and the United Nations — which would have led to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs being displaced — stand as further evidence of this attitude.
During the 1948 Nakba, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled as the State of Israel was established. Many of the more than 400 Palestinian villages that had been depopulated during the 1948 war were replaced with Jewish towns that bore Hebrew names. The remnants of other Palestinian villages were hidden by quick-growing pine trees, paid for by the Jewish National Fund.
Meanwhile, Israeli leaders and their Western allies argued that the Palestinian refugees who had been forced out should not be allowed to return. This idea was popularized in the 1958 bestselling novel Exodus and the 1960 film of the same name. By tapping into America’s own racist views of Native Americans as lacking deep ties to the land, Israel’s defenders could claim that Palestinian refugees should simply be resettled in another Arab country.
What is clear is that, following its establishment in 1948, Israel sought to erase Palestine’s Arab past, remove Palestine’s Arab inhabitants from their lands, and try to stop Palestine’s future.
A Palestinian response came — as indigenous responses to colonialism often do — through popular culture. During traditional dabke line dances, Palestinian villagers would sing, with joy and irreverence, songs that celebrated Palestine’s Arab roots. One popular refrain was: “From the water to the water / hey hey Palestine / Palestine is Arab / hey hey Palestine.”
The political concept of a “free Palestine” gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s among Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war. Unlike many other war refugees, Palestinian refugees (as non-Jews) were unable to return home.
For these Palestinian refugees, Israel represented a racist, colonial country that privileged Jews over non-Jews. Many wished to replace it with a secular, democratic, “free Palestine” in which Muslims, Christians and Jews would live side by side in their ancestral homeland.
Palestinians across the political spectrum have long stated that their vision of a free Palestine includes Jews as full and equal citizens. In 1969, Fatah (a Palestinian nationalist political party) declared its goal was to create “a democratic state capable of holding Jews, Muslims and Christians alike and in which all will have equal rights and obligations, irrespective of race, color or creed.” That same year, George Habash, leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said, “When the democratic national liberation struggle achieves its objectives, every Jew living in Palestine will enjoy equal and full rights with other citizens.” The Palestine National Council, the highest decision-making body of the Palestinians in exile, likewise formally called for a “Palestinian democratic state” that would be “free of all forms of religious and social discrimination.”
It appears that it was in this context that Palestinian political activists introduced the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (“Min al-nahr ila al-bahr, Filastin hurra hurra”) during demonstrations, echoing the popular folk songs.
In the 1970s and 1980s, some Palestinian leaders inched toward the idea of accepting a truncated Palestinian state on 22% of historic Palestine (the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). Those who continued to insist on a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” were holding firm to the demand of a single democratic secular state.
The failure of the Oslo two-state paradigm, coupled with the growing realization that Palestinians and Israelis today are living in a “one-state reality” under a system of apartheid, has led many Palestinians to go back to the core demand of freedom.
To understand the pro-Israel response, it helps to remember that many Israeli officials have long maintained Palestinians have no legitimate ties to the land and no legitimate national claims. By this logic, any calls for freedom for Palestinians can only be understood as inherently threatening.
While the traumas of historical Jewish persecution explain some of this fear, we cannot deny this attitude is also part of a longer history of anti-Arab racism that mischaracterizes and dehumanizes Arabs, including Palestinians, as inherently violent.
Some say that, even if the phrase isn’t intended to signal the genocide of Israelis, the fact that it makes some so uncomfortable should be enough to abandon it. This argument, too, is deeply unfair. It’s asking Palestinians to suppress their own calls for freedom to accommodate the comfort of others. This discomfort should be a chance to open up conversations, not shut them down.
Palestinians have watched in horror as the dismembered corpses of their friends and families are pulled out from under the rubble of bombed-out buildings in Gaza. They have received panicked phone calls from relatives in the West Bank telling them about loved ones who have been shot, arrested and tortured by Israeli soldiers and settlers. And they have been reading about how Palestinian citizens of Israel who merely call for a cease-fire are being arrested and beaten by the Israeli police. No Palestinian living between the river and the sea is safe. No Palestinian there is free.
And even though Palestinians in the United States today face unprecedented levels of anti-Palestinian hatred, repression, censorship and violence, they are mobilizing as never before, using their First Amendment rights to call for an end to Israel’s genocidal bombing in Gaza.
Even more, they are calling for a free Palestine.
If we are to find a glimmer of hope in these gruesome times, we should decide once and for all on the answer to these simple questions: Will we maintain the status quo of occupation, discrimination and apartheid? Or will we support Palestinians as they fight for a free Palestine for everyone living between the river and the sea?
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Maha Nassar is author of the award-winning book Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World. She is an associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.