Skip to main content

Israel-Palestine war: Reclaiming the slogan 'from the river to the sea'

Palestinians have been unfairly maligned for chanting these words, while Zionists continue their unlawful quest for territorial expansion
Protesters in Berlin express support for Palestinians on 4 November 2023 (AFP)

Since the start of Israel’s latest round of western-backed incremental genocide against the Palestinian people, unsuspecting Americans have learned a new phrase: “From the river to the sea.”

With their legendary command of world geography, they must be forgiven for a bit of bewilderment as to what river (Jordan) or which sea (Mediterranean) are being referenced, and what all the hoopla is about.  

We should all be grateful, as it were, to the leading Zionist propaganda outlets in the western media sphere for bringing such terms to the attention of their audiences.

All we need to do now is reverse their distortions of the relevant facts.  

Three radically different meanings battle for attention in this short phrase. First and foremost is the fact that the Euro-American settler colony of Israel is already practising its version of “from the river to the sea” in Palestine. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The second meaning is the defiant slogan of Palestinians against the wholesale theft of their homeland, and the third is the visionary way in which Palestinian intellectuals such as Edward Said have generously recast the phrase. 

Let us take a closer look at these three divergent meanings. 

As the number of slain Palestinians in the Gaza war has soared - now exceeding 15,000 - New York Times columnist Bret Stephens decided it was an opportune moment to write the following: “Antisemitism is the hate that doesn’t know its own name … Many of those who call themselves anti-Zionists or chant ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ would vehemently deny that they are engaged in antisemitic behavior.”  

What Stephens, the paper that employs him, and the entire Zionist propaganda machine fail to mention is the fact that the most zealous practitioners of “from the river to the sea” are the Israelis, not the Palestinians and their global supporters.  

Regional domination

The planned and practised heist referred to as “Greater Israel” - the name given to Tel Aviv’s goal of stealing more land from the Palestinians and other regional countries - is encompassed by the slogan “from the river to the sea”.

Jews around the world might understand this phrase as a reference to their “historical homeland”, but under the extended logic of the British colonialism that created this calamity, and the American imperialism that now sustains it, Israel has become a military base for western regional domination.

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage for the latest on the Israel-Palestine war

Palestinians, meanwhile, use the phrase “from the river to the sea” in an opposite way, as a call to reclaim their stolen homeland. They have turned the armed robbery of their homeland into a motto for their national liberation movement and anti-colonial struggle.

A third, now nearly impossible even to imagine, reading of the phrase is embedded in the idea of a one-state solution, as advocated by the late Said, who was the very moral conscience of Palestinian liberation. 

In a 1999 essay, Said gave a simple and elegant account of this idea: “The beginning is to develop something entirely missing from both Israeli and Palestinian realities today: the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle for coexistence. In a modern state, all its members are citizens by virtue of their presence and the sharing of rights and responsibilities. Citizenship therefore entitles an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab to the same privileges and resources.”  

From Tel Aviv to New York, Zionists lack even a shred of a reasonable argument for the continuing slaughter of Palestinians

That gracious, generous, forgiving, and entirely practical solution, which has been completely lost on Zionists, turns the notion of “from the river to the sea” into a homeland for both Jews and Palestinians - a far cry from the greedy land grabs the Israelis are practising. 

As I write this column, the Israelis are busy in their ongoing, systematic quest to eradicate Palestinians from their homeland, as propagandists in the West continue to blame, malign, and scandalise Palestinians for simply trying to reclaim a slogan.

From Tel Aviv to New York, Zionists lack even a shred of a reasonable argument for the continuing slaughter of Palestinians. It is no accident that Israeli forces have targeted children in particular, aiming to kill the future of Palestine. 

But for every Palestinian child killed, several more will emerge to reclaim their homeland, from the river to the sea - a homeland where one day, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others will be able to live in peace, with the nightmare of Zionism behind them.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.