From the river to the sea: Why a decades-old phrase evokes extreme reactions
The slogan "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" is often chanted at pro-Palestine demonstrations across the world
The River Jordan 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 km (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 km wide.
Geographically, it appears 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, however, has proved contentious, to the point where, in the beginning of November, it was banned by the German interior ministry.
Israel claimed at least 1,200 people were killed and around 240 more abducted and taken hostage during the attacks by Islamist militant group Hamas on 7 October. Along with the subsequent Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has so far resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Palestinians, there have been numerous solidarity marches and rallies.
The slogan "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" is often chanted at pro-Palestine 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.
The expression "from the river to the sea" was first used by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964. In its founding charter, the PLO demanded the establishment of a single Palestinian state extending from the River Jordan 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, more radical organisations such as the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas, which was founded in 1987.
Both Hamas and PFLP are designated as terrorist organisations by the EU, the United States, Germany and other nations. Hamas prominently used the slogan around 2012, when its then leader Khaled Mashal, in a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the group, declared: "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 organisation, 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.
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, Palestinian-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, 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."
The pro-Israel side does not accept this room for interpretation, perhaps tending to a more literal view of things. On this side, the slogan is widely perceived as anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist — and as a barely disguised call for the annihilation of Israel.
An open letter published in early November and signed by 30 Jewish media outlets around the world states: "Have no doubt that Hamas is cheering those 'from the river to the sea' chants, because a Palestine between the river to the sea leaves not a single inch for Israel."
Similarly, the American Jewish Committee asserts on its website: "There is of course nothing antisemitic about advocating for Palestinians to have their own state [...] However, calling for the elimination of the Jewish state, praising Hamas or other entities who call for Israel's destruction, or suggesting that the Jews alone do not have the right to self-determination, is antisemitic."
Their argument is that the use of the slogan has become intolerable due to radical Palestinian organisations having adopted it and claiming it as their own.
The main bone of contention remains: does the slogan exclude or include the Israeli people? Is it simply calling for equality for Palestinians, or the conquest and obliteration of the state of Israel?
The German judiciary, for instance, was also divided on the question for a long time. The slogan was deemed to be protected by laws governing freedom of expression, under which statements were only considered criminal if they incited violence. That was not held to have been definitively established in this case.
This opinion has now been revised, and the German interior ministry has prohibited the use of the slogan in Germany. It considers it an indication of support for Hamas, and a call for violence against Jews and against the state of Israel. Anyone using it could face fines for "incitement to hatred", or even, in a worst-case scenario, a jail sentence of up to three years. Some states are already pursuing the first criminal prosecutions.
Similar controversies have arisen in other countries about the use of the slogan. In October, a demonstration was banned in Austria because of it. In the United Kingdom, lawmaker Andy McDonald was suspended from the Labour Party for using the phrase at a pro-Palestine rally.
And in the US, the House of Representatives issued a rebuke to Democrat congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the only member of the US Congress with Palestinian roots, who had condemned the attacks by Hamas, but afterward repeatedly criticised Israel's actions in Gaza, when she used the disputed slogan.