9 November 2023
There seems to be a lot of controversy over the phrase "From the River to the Sea" regarding Palestine. "Pro-Israeli" supporters see it as a call to eliminate the state of Israel -- which it is in a way, but not in the genocidal way they intend. Historic Palestine in fact extended from the (Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) Sea, as even ancient maps show. And for the peoples of Palestine -- Muslims, Christians Jews; Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Circassians, Europeans and many more in what was always an ethnically and religiously diverse country -- "from the River to the Sea" was merely stating a geographical fact; it had no political meaning.
That changed with the advent of Zionism. Now another foreign people, an invader, challenged the very right of the local population to live in (and on) its land. Zionists claimed that the Land of Israel, their equivalent to "From the River to the Sea" (although more so, since they also claimed the land on the eastern side of the Jordan River), "belonged" exclusively to them. That claim and the actions that followed up until today eliminated the Palestinians as a people with national rights to their homeland. Indeed, Britain & France forced the peoples of the Ottoman Empire, who had been living together peacefully for centuries, to adopt antagonistic "national" identities and fight each other AND the European colonial powers for the right to have what they always had: a peaceful, multicultural life in their own country.
In 1967, Zionism/Israel completed its conquest of Palestine and has since consolidated its rule into what is today an internationally-recognized apartheid regime (despite lip-service to the "two-state solution," just a cosmetic form of apartheid). Unable to eke even a mini-state consisting of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza out of Israel (backed by the US and Europe), and unwilling to accept their dispersal and erasure as a people, the Palestinians have fought back in terms imposed upon them by Zionism and the European colonists: as a national group, they demand the end of Zionist settler colonialism and the restoration of their national rights (and people, the return of the refugees) to their native land -- which lies "From the River to the Sea."
This might be seen, not unjustly, as a struggle to eliminate the Zionist colonial regime that eliminated them and, in a process of cultural genocide, their very collective existence in their country. For Palestinians, then, the issue is simple. Just as Kenya returned to the people of (a European-created) Kenya after the defeat of British colonialism and Algeria returned to the people of Algeria after the defeat of French colonialism, so too should Palestine "From the River to the Sea" return to the Palestinian people.
But here enters a great complication. Unlike Kenya or Algeria, the settlers in Palestine (now Jewish Israelis) will not leave and are too entrenched to be forced out. Palestine resembles more South Africa (or, in a more extreme sense, the US, Canada, Australia, Tibet): the settlers are there to stay, and in the case of Israeli Jews see themselves not only as legitimate residents of the country but a national group with claims of self-determination of its own. What to do?
The two-state solution was a possibility. It was not just, but in 1988 - 35 years ago! - the PLO, the universally recognized leadership of the Palestinian people, accepted it IF the Palestinian state that emerges in the 22% of Palestine that is the Occupied Territory would be genuinely sovereign, territorially coherent and economically viable. To that Israel and its backers said "no," and Israel has continued to expand and consolidate its hold over "Greater" Israel "From the River to the Sea" as an exclusively Jewish territory, with Palestinian bantustans.
The only other way to avoid permanent war in which each national group attempts to eliminate the other is to establish a single state of equal rights of all its citizens. In order to deal with Palestinian national aspirations AND the irreversible presence of a Jewish national group between the River and the Sea, that state - in my humble view and in that of the Palestinian-led One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC) of which I am a member - must be a civil yet bi-national state. It must find the balance between equal rights in a shared state and society on the one hand, and the national expression of both national groups on the other. Not an easy task.
"From the River to the Sea," then, need not mean the elimination of Israel in any genocidal sense. It DOES mean the transformation of Israel and the Occupied Territory into a state of all its citizens, a new country with a new name. (And decolonized, the structures of Israeli domination and control thoroughly dismantled.)
Most Palestinians reject the notion that Israeli Jews constitute a national group, seeing that as legitimizing a settler colonial population. For them, Jews can remain as equal citizens of a Palestine restored to the Palestinian people, but as an ethnic or religious community, not a national one. Others, including the ODSC, consider bi-nationalism a fact of life and insist that it must be incorporated into any one-state solution.
All this remains to be worked out as the anti-colonial struggle against Zionism/Israel continues. But for those that wish the best for both peoples, "From the River to the Sea" is at once an acknowledgement of the integrity of a country called Palestine, an aspiration that Palestine will be freed of colonialism, occupation and apartheid, and a challenge: how to formulate and implement a (substantially) just and inclusive political program that liberates not only the Palestinians but all the inhabitants living From the River to the Sea. For that we need good faith, not adherence to polarizing views.
I have written about this in my book Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine.