'From the river to the sea': Why is the Palestinian nationalist slogan about Gaza a flashpoint?

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib's use of the phrase led to her censure this week.

November 10, 2023, 2:04 PM

When the House this week voted to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, accusing her of calling for Israel's destruction, her critics said it was, in part, because she repeated the Palestinian nationalist slogan, "from the river to the sea."

The phrase, perhaps unfamiliar to many Americans, has been around for decades, before the militant group Hamas even existed, and continues with the words, "Palestine will be free."

It has now become both a rallying cry for Palestinian rights chanted by supporters worldwide -- and what others consider offensive code for wiping Israel off the map, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as Hamas has vowed to do.

A protester holds a placard reading 'From the river to the sea, we demand equality', during a protest in solidarity with Palestinians, in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 4 2023.
Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., adopted the phrase in its 2017 charter. The group's brutal attack on Israel on Oct. 7 caused the horrific deaths of 1,400 men, women and children, according to Israeli officials.

That, as the world has seen in grim detail since, set off the current war in the neighboring Gaza Strip, where more than 10,000 people have been killed, many of them innocent civilians, including thousands of children buried under blasts from Israeli bombs, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

What Tlaib said she meant

Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, posted on X that the entire phrase is "an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate," explaining why she posted a video to X of protesters chanting the phrase. Later in that video she accused President Joe Biden of supporting a Palestinian "genocide."

Rashida Tlaib post from X.

Tlaib has posted on X and said in interviews that she does not support Hamas, does not want to eradicate Israel and does not want to eradicate Jews.

Her defenders say she shouldn't be punished for exercising free speech even if they don't agree with it -- and note she didn't explicitly call for Israel's eradication.

The Anti-Defamation League has rejected that explanation, calling the phrase antisemitic -- saying it's a "charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland."

House Republicans repeatedly rebuked Tlaib for using the phrase during the debate over her censure.

Rep. Ilhan Omar comforts Rep. Rashida Tlaib as she speaks on the House floor on Nov. 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
House of Representatives TV

"When [Tlaib] chants 'from the river to the sea,' she believes it. Otherwise, she would never repeat that vile, vile statement" shouted Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican.

GOP Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey said that a line had to be drawn over what is considered acceptable speech.

"We don't entertain hate in this Congress, we confront it," Van Drew said.

Even 70 of Tlaib's fellow House Democrats, many Jewish, signed a letter on Tuesday blasting her use of the slogan.

"We reject the use of the phrase 'from the river to the sea' -- a phrase used by many, including Hamas, as a rallying cry for the destruction of the State of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people," the Democratic lawmakers said.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries released a statement condemning what Tlaib said, but not personally denouncing the Michigan congresswoman.

"Echoing slogans that are widely understood as calling for the complete destruction of Israel -- such as from the River to the Sea -- does not advance progress toward a two-state solution. Instead, it unacceptably risks further polarization, division and incitement to violence," Jeffries wrote.

"As public officials serving in Congress, the words we choose matter," Jeffries continued.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the phrase "divisive" during Wednesday's press briefing.

"Many find it hurtful, and also, many find it antisemitic. And so, obviously, we categorically reject applying the term to this conflict," Jean-Pierre said.

Where did the phrase and its meaning originate?

There are many deep, complex and historical roots associated with "from the river to the sea," an expert ABC News spoke with said.

"Everything related to the Middle East conflict is complex. And part of the complexity is that you have multiple perspectives, and narratives about those perspectives," said Ezzedine Fishere, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

While the phrase literally means from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, it symbolizes control over the territory within those Israeli borders and the fight for it to be a homeland for only one nation, said Fishere, who has served as a diplomat in the region, spending five years in Israel, Gaza and Palestinian territories.

Israel & Palestinian Territories as referred to in “From the River to the Sea”
ABC News

"So, the conflict is over a land. And it's a conflict between two nationalisms, each of which has a claim on this land," Fishere said of Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party used the phrase in its party platform in 1977 to mean one nation, one state, one sovereignty: Israel. Palestinians, however, adopted it to mean one state: Palestine. So, "neither side is willing to share," Fishere said.

"From river to sea -- the question then becomes, do we have one state or two? Is it a home for two nations? Or is it a home for one nation? And if we say it's a home for one nation, what happens to the other nation? That is the question. … That was the question back then; it's the question today," he said.

Evacuating residents pass a destroyed building following Israeli air strikes in the northern Gaza Strip, Nov. 7, 2023.
Mohammed Saber/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Fishere said there are differing degrees of the phrase. Some versions are more harmonious in nature, where one nation has sovereignty, but the other nation can stay and inhabit the land as residents or citizens -- as long as they behave. For others, it means the opposing nation must move somewhere else. The worst version may be more "genocidal" and endorse the killing of the other nation, he added. Hamas uses the phrase in the "crudest way possible" to signal a fight to eradicate Israelis, which they are willing to wage until the "end of days," Fishere said.

"If it's used by Palestinians, it's directed to the other side. If it's used by an Israeli, it's directed to the Palestinians," Fishere said.

The American Jewish Committee says the phrase calls for the establishment of a State of Palestine -- by erasing Israel and its people.

Palestinians inspect the damage of a destroyed mosque following an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Nov. 8, 2023.
Mohammed Dahman/AP

"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," AJC wrote on its website.

For many Palestinians, it's a rallying cry that harkens back to their being expelled from the region with the establishment of Israel in 1948.

In 2018, Maha Nassar -- a Palestinian American and a scholar of Palestinian history -- wrote that the phrase represents the freedom Palestinians seek -- not an effort to disparage Israelis.

The phrase, which grew popular in the 1960s, was "part of a larger call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine. Palestinians hoped their state would be free from oppression of all sorts, from Israeli as well as from Arab regimes," Nassar wrote.

Fishere said the phrase is emblamatic of a "repetitive" and "heartbreaking" conflict.

"It is so obvious that, you know, nobody's going anywhere. So, either … they share or they fight -- there is no third way," Fishere said.

The phrase goes beyond the current conflict

"From the river to the sea" has become a popular chant at many pro-Palestinian protests -- something Fishere said he attributes to the perception of Israel's involvement in what critics call "settler colonialism."

"Many of [the protesters] are just coming from different backgrounds, including Americans who have zero connection to the Middle East, but they are revolted by what they see as a settler colonial enterprise that continues -- and that links up with other movements that are opposed to colonialism, and, you know, native rights and so on," Fishere said. "And in their view, 'from the river to the sea' captures that desire to undo settler colonialism."

People, including one holding up a sign that reads: "From the River to the Sea", attend a "Freedom for Palestine" protest that drew thousands of participants on Nov. 4, 2023, in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

However pure protesters' motivations may be, Fishere warns "that history cannot be undone."

"You cannot rewind the reel back to 18 A.D. and then redirect the players to, you know, [do] the following scenes different -- you can't change the script. You can only go forward from where we are," he said.

Fishere said those who use the phrase should consider what it means for the other side: "What's the next move for the other when this is what you're advocating? What do you want the other side to do?"

"When you say there is no place for Palestinian self determination in this land, what do you expect the Palestinians to do? Or feel? Does this make them more willing to live with you? Does this make them more willing to accept you? The same thing applies to the Palestinians when you say this, does this make all those millions [of Israelis] ... more [willing]?"

Tlaib's use of the phrase may be more polarizing than unifying, Fishere said.

"When I say this, and the majority of Israeli Jews hear it as genocidal intent, does this make them really interested in my co-existence? ... Or does this make them more belligerent and antagonistic?" Fishere asked of Tlaib.

Fishere said if a phrase is used in a specific way for decades, it "becomes very hard to kind of take that slogan and redefine it on an individual level."

"Now I heard Rep. Talib saying that she means she has developed this meaning that it means freedom for all -- everybody, from rivers to sea, and so on. And it's a very commendable definition. But it is not the common definition. And that begs the question about, you know, can you use a sentence that's already used in a certain way and then have your own definition of it?" Fishere said. "That's not for me to answer."

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