Now Reading
From the River to the Sea

From the River to the Sea

Matthew Teller is an author, journalist and documentary-maker who has spent many years living, working and travelling in the Middle East.

In February 1971, a few years after Israel’s conquest of the Egyptian Sinai, US media reported that Israel’s defence minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, had told a group of army veterans in Tel Aviv that it was better to have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than to have peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.

In the end, of course, Dayan had neither: Israel returned Sharm el-Sheikh, a town at the Sinai’s southernmost tip, to Egypt only eleven years later along with the rest of the peninsula—and as for peace, well, we are further from it now than Dayan himself was back then. But the quote remains apt for revealing the zero-sum outlooks that have long driven policy among both Israeli and Palestinian elites.

The zero-sum assumption that if you gain, I lose—and its corollary: I must gain at all costs, in order to make damn sure you lose—underpinned almost everything about the Middle East’s US-led peace process, long moribund. The last few years have seen a shift in Palestinian opinion at least, away from older generations’ lingering trauma around lost land to a new, more inclusive focus on attaining equality of rights wherever grossly unjust conditions prevail under Israeli control.

This has illuminated a longstanding slogan of liberation: “From the river to the sea”. The phrase is a way of referring to the whole of the land lying between the River Jordan to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west without explicitly naming either Palestine or Israel—harmless enough, you might think.

Yet with or without the rhyming addition “Palestine will be free” appended, some choose to interpret the sentiment as genocidal, a demand for the erasure of Jewish presence. The Anti-Defamation League calls it “an antisemitic charge”. The Football Association has banned its use. British MP Andy McDonald remains suspended from the Labour Party for saying it. Last month, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a leading voice in Britain’s Reform Jewish community, said that it meant “expelling Jews [and] eradicating Israel”. In the US, lawyer and Democrat congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has been censured by the House of Representatives for saying it. Public prosecutors in Germany tried (and failed) to criminalise it.

Yet the phrase is not new. It has been said for sixty years or more by Palestinians and Israelis alike who oppose partition. The Palestine Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat used it in its founding documents in 1964—reflecting, as University of Arizona historian Maha Nasser points out, Palestinians’ bitter experience of partition since 1947—and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also used it this year: “The state of Israel has to control the entire area from the river to the sea,” he said on January 18. It featured in a 1977 manifesto put out by Israel’s right-wing Likud party, and in the 2017 charter of Hamas. Robin Kelley, professor of history at UCLA, wrote in 2019 that the phrase “began as a Zionist slogan signifying the boundaries of Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel]” and Nimer Sultany, who teaches law at SOAS University of London, said in 2023 that “[t]hose who support apartheid and Jewish supremacy will find the egalitarian chant objectionable.”

So if everyone says it and has always said it, why is it in the news now? Israel’s horrifying assault on Gaza, ruled as plausibly genocidal by the International Court of Justice, has reignited musings among policymakers worldwide about a “two-state solution.” This deeply flawed scheme would partition the land between the river and the sea to create a Palestinian state on the 22% of terrain that is currently occupied by Israel in contravention of international law, alongside an Israeli state on the remaining 78%.

That, in turn, has prompted re-examination of the viability of partition—and, specifically, conditions today within what is de facto a single state between the river and the sea, where Palestinians live constrained lives separated from Israelis and each other by a labyrinth of legislative and bureaucratic divisions.

Israeli policy has effectively created eight separate categories of Palestinians, each granted fewer rights than the last. At the top are the 2.1 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, evasively defined “Arab Israelis” in Israeli rhetoric. They hold Israeli passports, enjoy freedom of movement, access to Israeli healthcare, education, and economy, and the right to vote, though they also face institutional discrimination and widespread racism in Israeli society.

Below them are the 370,000 Palestinians of Jerusalem. They may apply for Israeli citizenship, but Israel can—and often does—refuse it. Most are stateless. They cannot vote in national elections and although they are around 35% of the city’s population, Palestinian districts of Jerusalem receive between 5% and 12% of funding from the municipal budget. Israel’s concrete separation wall winding through Jerusalem’s suburbs isolates two such districts, Kufr Aqab and Shuafat Camp, which—uniquely—are inside the city but physically separated from it. Palestinian Authority officials may not enter, and Israeli ones refuse to. Despite for the most part paying Israeli taxes, people there are in limbo, living in overcrowded, substandard housing, with non-existent services and no law enforcement.

Next come around 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, who are not citizens of Israel and who have no representation in the authorities that govern their lives. Israel gives them distinctive ID cards and controls their movement with hundreds of military checkpoints and surveillance cameras. They are threatened daily by armed Israeli settlers, who act in co-ordination with the Israeli military. In the West Bank, if a Jewish person and a non-Jewish person commit the same crime in the same place at the same time, they face different outcomes. The Jewish person is tried with due process in Israel’s civilian court system. The non-Jewish person is tried in a military court, which convict in more than 99% of cases. West Bank Palestinians are also subject to Israeli administrative detention, which means they can be imprisoned indefinitely without charge on the grounds that they might in future break the law; more than a thousand people are so detained today. Palestinians who live in the West Bank’s Oslo-imposed subdivisions of Areas C, B and A live under progressively greater restrictions.

Then there are the 2.2 million Palestinians of Gaza. Even before the current horror, they lived trapped by Israel in what is effectively a concentration camp, with no rights, no freedom of movement, under continuous hostile surveillance, every aspect of their lives controlled by Israel.

The eighth layer in the cake are the 50% of Palestinians, some 7 million people, who live elsewhere in the world. They may visit their homeland only as tourists, applying to Israeli authorities for a short-stay visitor visa and then—should one be granted—often facing punitive immigration controls or deportation.

Faced with such absurd cruelty, “From the river to the sea” is simply a plea to be rid. It seeks to abolish the divisions, to reclaim equality. It is an uncomplicated rejection of Israel’s laws of human classification and segregation, and an assertion of the most basic right to dignity and self-determination.

Slogans of liberation are often misunderstood, sometimes deliberately. Some choose to interpret “Black Lives Matter” as meaning white lives don’t matter. Some see the inclusivity of “LGBTQ+” as a threat, and cherry-pick from it. “From the river to the sea” says nothing about genocide, or expulsion, or eradication. Those who call its principled opposition to Israeli-imposed injustice antisemitic merely cheapen the word.

But this little phrase asks tough questions. What, it says, are the arguments against justice and equal opportunity for everyone on this tiny patch of land? What are the arguments against democracy, universal suffrage and equal application of the law? “From the river to the sea” seeks a future beyond the cynicism of Moshe Dayan and the zero-sum nationalism of segregating lands and peoples into smaller and smaller partitions. As Jewish Currents writer Yousef Munayyer pointed out, it envisions equitable peace amid borderless consensus.

Perhaps that’s why so many seek to proscribe it.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA

Read more from Matthew Teller

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City
In Jerusalem, what you see and what is true are two different things. Maps divide the walled Old City into four quarters, yet that division doesn’t reflect the reality of mixed and diverse neighbourhoods. Beyond the crush and frenzy of its major religious sites, much of the Old City remains little known to visitors, its people overlooked and their stories untold. Nine Quarters of Jerusalem lets the communities of the Old City speak for themselves. Ranging through ancient past and political present, it evokes the city’s depth and cultural diversity.

© Royal Society for Asian Affairs. All rights reserved.
Scroll To Top