Blog post

Palestine Will Be Free

Today there is only one progressive way out: to democratize the entire territory, to grant all of its inhabitants equality of political, social, and economic rights, to allow the refugees to return, and to make decisions on the future based through the basic principle of one person one vote.

Sai Englert14 November 2023

Palestine Will Be Free

This is part of an ongoing blog series centered around the phrase "From The River To The Sea." To view the full series click here.

The scale of death and destruction in Gaza since 7th October is impossible to express adequately in writing, and yet one cannot write about Gaza without repeating the horrific facts. Over 11,000 have been killed. Entire families have been wiped out. Schools, universities, and hospitals, churches and mosques, supposedly safe roads, the crossing into Egypt, and at least 42% of housing units in the strip have been bombed. 1.4 million people have been displaced. The collective punishment meted out by Israel on the Palestinians in Gaza is calculated, methodical, and repeatedly stated as official policy by Israeli officials. Hundreds of specialists have warned that Israel’s actions amount to Genocide. 

Nor is the current unfolding of violence limited to Gaza. Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank are being targeted by a growing wave of settler and military violence. The refugee camp of Nur Shams in Tulkarem was repeatedly bombed, while attacks by settlers are being carried out across the West Bank. They are taking place at the tail end of a year that already saw the largest amount of Palestinian deaths in the WB in years. They are also encouraged by the Israeli government, which has distributed over 10,000 firearms to its settler population. Over 100,000 Israelis have submitted applications for gun licenses. Last week, a Hamas official in the West Bank was tortured to death by his Israeli jailors. 

In the midst of the horror, the tone of the mainstream media - whether in Europe or North America – beggars belief. Journalists for the major news broadcasters and state officials continue to amplify every unverified Israeli claim in an (unsuccessful) attempt to win over popular support for its crimes. Everyday newscasters report the growing death toll with little more empathy or detail than a weather report, and without acknowledging that they are being killed, that they do not simply die

The United States has sent munitions, troops and two aircraft carriers. Britain has sent warships and surveillance planes. The Netherlands and Germany have stationed troops in Cyprus. The message is clear: not only are our rulers prepared to allow Israel to proceed, they will protect it while doing so. The list of people who should be dragged to the international criminal court in the Hague grows by the day.

The support of our governments is to be expected. Zionism, and then the Israeli state, have been supported and funded for over a century by European powers and the US. The  ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism’ – in the words of Sir Ronald Storss, then British military governor of Palestine – played a crucial role in breaking the back of anti-colonial movements across the region, while defending the key trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. To this day, the Suez canal remains one of the most important thoroughfares in world trade – and Western interests in the region continue to be imposed against the will of its populations. A loyal military ally in the region is a priceless commodity – and so be it if the tab is cleared over the back of the Palestinian people. 

Western governments have not only expressed their unwavering support for Israel in the midst of the unfolding genocidal violence, but they have also waged an aggressive campaign against any expression of solidarity. Their ally needs to be protected if their interests are going to be. This has translated into a full blown assault on the Palestine solidarity movement. The Dutch Justice and Security minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius has claimed that to provide historical context for the 7th October attack against Israel is ‘morally reprehensible’, while Prime Minister Rutte called it ‘disrespectful’ to take Israel’s announcements that it is cutting off food and water from Gaza at face value. France banned all solidarity demonstrations – until it was forced to backtrack in the face of mass mobilizations across the country. Berlin followed suit and the German state is going as far as criminalizing kuffiyyehs in schools and banning Palestinian flags. In Britain, similar ideas have been floated but have been effectively challenged by monster demonstrations, both in London and around the country, week in week out. 

Prior to this latest wave, France, Germany, Britain and the US had already moved to equate anti-Zionism and Palestine Solidarity with antisemitism, while trying to outlaw the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The British government continues to try to ban local governments from implementing boycott policies, despite several previous failed attempts. Simultaneously, pro-Israel advocates have pushed to equate expressions of basic fact with antisemitism through the widely critiqued International Holocaust Remembrance alliance working-definition of antisemitism. The IHRA accuses those who define Israel’s creation as a racist endeavor or reject the idea that Israel is a liberal democracy as antisemites. Yet, it is difficult to know how else to describe a state that was founded through the ethnic cleansing of over 700.000 Palestinians, which continues to refuse the right of roughly 7 million refugees to return to their homes, which maintains over 65 laws targeted specifically at Palestinians, keeps 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank under military rule, and holds 2,3 million in Gaza caged-in, while limiting their supplies of food, medicine, and construction materials, while regularly subjects them to devastating military assaults. This is racist, undemocratic, apartheid rule. 

Amidst the general noise of repression, a particular refrain has emerged. The chant – so omnipresent in solidarity demonstrations – ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’ is being targeted for criminalisation. The argument goes, as Suella Braverman (amongst many other right wing politicians) put it, that the chant is antisemitic and that it calls for the wiping out of Israelis. It should be, Braverman argued, prosecuted by the police and perhaps even banned altogether by the state. Braverman – and the UK – are not alone. In the Netherlands, parliament voted to condemn the chant, after a debate in which the microphone of left-wing MP Sylvana Simmons was cut off because she repeated the slogan under discussion! The argument is extraordinary. While Israel, which does, in fact, rules over Palestine and Palestinians from the River to the Sea, is carpet bombing over 2 million people trapped behind the barbed wire of a camp, while cutting off their food, water, and fuel, it is the chants of freedom of its victims that are being constructed as an appeal for mass murder.

Reality, of course, is different. The chant echoes a slogan of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) dating back to the 1960s, sometimes also rendered as from the water to the water. It expresses the Palestinian demand for the liberation of the whole of historic Palestine, stretching from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea. The PLO fought for the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the end of Israeli colonial rule, across all of Palestine. It argued for the creation of a single, democratic state, built not on ethnic, religious, or racial domination, but on the equality of all its inhabitants. 

The slogan lost its centrality in official Palestinian politics when the PLO accepted the idea of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, during the Oslo process in the early 1990s. Palestinian political movements that saw Oslo for what it was – a new stage in the colonization of Palestine, focussed on subcontracting the occupation to the Palestinian Authority and facilitating Israel’s normalization in the region – continued to demand liberation from the River to the Sea. How right they were. Thirty years later, no Palestinian state, in any part of historic Palestine, has emerged or is in the process to. The settler population in the West Bank and Jerusalem has surpassed 600,000. Israel continues to rule over the whole of Palestine, and impose its colonial rule through brutal force. 

The idea of Palestinian independence, on any part of its territory, is more illusive today than it was before the accords. The irony is, of course, that while our governments condemn the popular demand for a free Palestine from the River to the Sea, they continue to arm, support, and trade with the Israel state, which imposes its rule – from the sea to the river. Today there is only one progressive way out: to democratize the entire territory, to grant all of its inhabitants equality of political, social, and economic rights, to allow the refugees to return, and to make decisions on the future based through the basic principle of one person one vote.

It should be obvious for all those willing to listen that it is to this kind of vision of liberation that the chant refers to, given that its second half is ‘Palestine will be free’. It tells us more about our rulers and their Zionist allies than about the Palestinian national movement, that they can only imagine a free Palestinian as one which would be born through mass murder and expulsion. It is an extraordinary example of projection by a political movement which has always – and continues to – impose its state building project through the forceful displacement and dispossession of the Indigenous Palestinian population. Our governments know, of course, that a democratic, decolonised Palestine would not do their bidding in the region. The logic for supporting Zionism is the same as that which leads our governments to support all the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region. To allow the people in the Middle East and North Africa to determine their future, is to allow the collapse of Western hegemony over trade, resources, and money flows at this crucial junction of the world economy. 

In fact, the most important solidarity initiative to come out of Palestine in recent history makes the alternative Palestinian vision plain. The BDS movement, which was initiated by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and which our governments have been so eager to criminalize, argues for three simple demands to be met, which are the preconditions for a democratic future for all the inhabitants of the land. They demand that Israel

  1. [End] its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  2. [Recognize] the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
  3. [Respect, protect and promote] the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

That these demands are terrifying to our rulers tells us everything we need to know. A free Palestine, from the river to the sea – without refugees, military occupation, racial inequality – would mean the end of their dominance in the region. The world is currently receiving yet another horrendous illustration of what price the Palestinians have to pay for the maintaining of the current status quo. 

It is of course true, as Hil Aked reminds us in their excellent book, that the ferocity of the repression of Palestine solidarity is only ever proportional to the strength of the movements that it aims to repress. Our rulers are running scared. Millions are taking to the streets across the world to reject their governments' complicity with the murder and oppression of Palestinians, and are demanding an end to Palestinian subjugation. They know that the only way out is freedom. For all. From the river to the sea.
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