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.
“From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” Of late, a lot of ink has been spilled condemning those words. As Gaza is decimated by what can only be described as carpet bombing; as medicine, food, water, and fuel are running out; as hunger, thirst and communicable diseases spread; as hospitals are bombed, invaded, collapsed, and the health care system as a whole is on the brink of total disintegration; and with over 11,000 Palestinians killed, over 27,000 injured, close to half of whom are children, the mainstream press, university administrations, politicians, and some national Jewish organizations are fixated on the purported threat contained in those words, chanted at peaceful demonstrations around the country and the world. Only last week, Columbia University suspended two student organizations. Gerald Rosberg, Senior Vice-President and the Chair of the recently established “Special Committee on Campus Safety”, justified the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace on the grounds that they had held an “unauthorized” event. But that was not all: the demonstration on the steps of Low Library “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” What was he referring to? “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” he informed the students, is “a call for genocide.”
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Rosberg is right—that we should interpret the phrase “from the river to the sea” as an incitement to genocide? The question is, when spoken by whom? Those words do not appear in the founding documents of either the Palestine Liberation Organization or Hamas, even if a former leader of Hamas did speak those words in 2012 when celebrating the group’s 25th anniversary. They do, however, appear in the Likud Party’s founding document in 1977: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the sea and the Jordan there will be only Israeli sovereignty.” What’s more, in December 2022, when Benjamin Netanyahu formed his most right-wing coalition to-date, the new government’s “guiding principles” opened with the following words: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel [Eretz Yisrael]. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel— in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.”
From the Jordan River to the Sea: That is the geopolitical unit over which the Israeli state has ruled since 1967. That is the geopolitical unit over which the Likud Party and the recent coalition government have asserted “exclusive” and “inalienable” sovereign rights. And there are other words and names through which exclusive ownership and sovereign rule over this entire territory has been asserted, over and over again, in Israeli political speech: In Hebrew, Eretz Yisrael: There is no carve-out for East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza in that name. The names “Judea and Samaria,” in English or when spoken in Hebrew, are claims to Jewish-national ownership of the West Bank: the biblical heartland cannot possibly belong to anyone else. And lest it seem otherwise, the assertion of the exclusive right of sovereign ownership and national determination over the land from the river and the sea is now enshrined in Israel’s newest “Basic Law”  passed by the Knesset July 2018. As “the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” this law establishes that, “The land of Israel [Eretz Yisrael] is the historical homeland of the Jewish people”; and that “the right to exercise national self-determination” on that land is “unique to the Jewish people.”
“From the river to the sea” is “threatening” and “intimidating” speech; it is a call to “genocidal violence.” Perhaps such interpretations are revealing in ways those voicing them cannot quite hear—or admit. Perhaps those words echo a Zionist political unconscious, terrifying when presumed to be mirrored by “the other side”. After all, when spoken on behalf of the Israeli state, “from the river to the sea” is an eliminationist call. Ethnic cleansing grounds the Zionist state: For the Jewish state to be born in 1948, a Jewish majority had to be established in the territory that would come under its control. 750,000 Palestinians were expelled. They were not allowed to return. When Israel expanded its sovereignty over the entire space of historic Palestine—from the river to the sea—mass expulsion happened once again: up to half a million Palestinians and Syrians were forced to leave the territories that Israel captured in the 1967 war. They were not allowed to return. If a Jewish state, that is simultaneously a democratic state, as its proponents contend, is to exist in and for the future, a Jewish majority may have to be (re-)established once again. Those expelled will not be allowed to return.
With the rise to parliamentary power of Israel’s radical right, the previously, mostly quiet part is being spoken out loud. “Transfer”—another Nakba, that may be what is needed yet again. Over the last several years, such speech has become part of the everyday lexicon of Israeli politics. The Jewish Power Party (Otzma Yehudit), one of the three most powerful parties in the coalition established in December 2022, states in its platform: In defense of the state’s exclusively Jewish character, “War on Israel’s enemies will be total and without negotiation, concession or compromise…[which] have so far led only to more wars, bloodshed, rocket- and gun-fire and grief. The establishment of sovereignty over all parts of Eretz Israel liberated in the Six-Day War and settlement of the enemies of Israel in the Arab countries that surround our small land” is the end game. Settler violence—supplemented, suborned, protected by the Israel Defense Forces and intended to terrorize Palestinians into leaving their villages and homes—has been on the rise in the West Bank, especially over the last year. Since October 7, it has picked up ever more speed. According to a Haaretz post on Twitter on November 3, 2023, the IDF “intends to recruit settlers who have not undergone military training and place them as regional defense militiamen in their area of residence.” As reported by Hamdan Mohammed al-Huraini, writing in 972Magazine, since the war on Gaza began, “settler-soldier militias have been raiding rural communities across the West Bank, assaulting Palestinian residents, and threatening them with more violence if they do not leave their homes. While the whole world is watching Israel’s assault on Gaza, the settlers have seized the opportunity to ramp up their attacks in an attempt to forcibly and systematically displace hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Palestinians.” And in this “alarming escalation,” al-Huraini writes, “it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between settlers and soldiers.”
Over the past month the idea of “transfer” on a mass scale—that is, an eliminationist project committed to forcing Palestinians out of historic Palestine, one more time—has returned to center-stage. As per a document leaked from a small, and not all that powerful Ministry of Intelligence: this is the moment to forcibly transfer of all of Gaza’s inhabitants to the Sinai. Israel should “’evacuate the civilian population to Sinai’” during the war; establish “tent cities and later more permanent cities in the northern Sinai.” It should create a “’sterile zone of several kilometers…within Egypt, and [prevent] the return of the population to activities and residences near the border with Israel.’” The document lays out the stages: Stage 1. Tell the population to evacuate South, while air strikes are the focus of the IDF campaign; Stage 2: a ground incursion, leading to the “occupation of the entire strip from the north to the south,” and the “cleansing of the underground bunkers.” Meanwhile, “Palestinian civilians must be moved into Egypt and not allowed to return” The plan, it clarifies, should be sold to the world on humanitarian grounds: if the civilian population is moved, there will be fewer civilian casualties.  In other words, let us not voice the quiet part in public, that is, that they will not be allowed to return.
This is not a binding document. This is not a particularly powerful ministry. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that it is not an isolated or fringe idea. There have been repeated attempts to negotiate an exit for Gazans into the Sinai, by Anthony Blinken for one. Or as reported in the New York Times on November 5, “Israel has quietly tried to build international support in recent weeks for the transfer of several hundred thousand civilians from Gaza to Egypt for the duration of its war,” a suggestion “dismissed by most of Israel’s interlocutors—who include the United States and Britain—because they fear such “mass displacement could become permanent.” (Had Blinken had a revelation over the past 4 weeks?) Piling on, on November 14 The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed penned by Danny Danon (of the Likud) and Ram Ben-Barak (of Yesh Atid and former Deputy Director of the Mossad, 2009-11) that calls for “voluntary” transfer. After beginning by placing the blame for the humanitarian crisis squarely on Hamas, they write, “As the war continues…U.N. resolutions are doing nothing tangible to help Gaza's residents. It is imperative that the international community explore potential solutions to help civilians caught in the crisis.” Careful to couch their argument under the pretext of granting Gazans a “choice,” they propose an apparently humane solution: “One idea is for countries around the world to accept limited numbers of Gazan families who have expressed a desire to relocate.” Meanwhile speaking on “Meet the Press” on Israel’s Channel 12, Avi Dichter, the Minister of Agriculture and former head of the Shin Bet, said: “We are now actually rolling out the Gaza Nakba.” “Nakba 2023”, he pronounced. Most significant perhaps, to return to the Ministry of Intelligence’s transfer document, Stages 1 and 2 of their military strategy are well under way.
Between the sea and the Jordan there will be only Israeli sovereignty: Those are not just words printed in the Likud Party’s founding document. That is the reality on the ground: Israeli state sovereignty from the river to the sea is now over 56-years old. As that political reality persists, as a Jewish state exercising its sovereign power over more than seven million Palestinians (citizens inside the Green line, subjects in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza), the central contradictions of this settler-nation have become ever harder to sustain: the state can be either Jewish or democratic, but it cannot be both. Unable to give up its commitment to the former, the need to change the demographic balance once again comes to the fore. For the radical right, that truth is easily spoken out loud. For Jewish-Israelis who consider themselves more centrist, liberal even, perhaps the opportunity offered by this war is the only way out: transfer in the name of humanitarian concern. Once out, as every Palestinian knows, they will never be allowed to return.
From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free: Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists chanting those words on the streets of New York and London, at Columbia and on university campuses elsewhere are voicing a radically different political vision. They reject Israel’s foundationally eliminationist politics. They reject the zero-sum ethno-nationalist game that has been at the heart of Zionist ideology and the Israeli regime for over a century now. “From the river to the sea,” those words are harnessed to speak a politics that, as utopian as it may appear in the midst of the ongoing slaughter in Gaza, should be understood for what it is: a vision of and for a better world. “Democracy for everyone from the Jordan to the Sea,” as stated plainly in the Hebrew script in the upper right corner of the poster below. Displayed at the SJP/ JVP rally held last week on the steps of Low Library at Columbia University, those words were there for everyone to see—including Columbia’s Executive Vice-President Gerald Rosberg. (Maybe he should have asked someone to translate the Hebrew for him?) In what world do the powers that be—at the level of the university, or far more significantly, at the level of state-power—think that suppressing a call for democratic rights from the river to the sea is the right thing to do?
Nadia Abu El-Haj is Ann Whitney Olin Professor in Departments of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, Co-Director of the Center for Palestine Studies, and author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashionign in Israeli Society (University of Chicago, 2001), and most recently Combat Trauma: Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in Post 9/11 America (Verso 2022)
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The Committee, which was established in violation of established procedures and rules at Columbia University, charged students with defying the requirement for a university permit for their event. Over the past month, the presidential offices of both Barnard College and Columbia University have instituted a series of rules governing various aspects of university life, with no faculty consultation, in order to block “pro-Palestinian” political speech and academic engagement or speech, now under the guise of “procedural violations” or procedural “reforms.” See Sarah Huddleston, “Columbia Updated its Event Policy Webpages. Twelve days later, it suspended SJP and JVP,” The Columbia Spectator, November 17, 2023. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2023/11/17/columbia-updated-its-event-policy-webpages-twelve-days-later-it-suspended-sjp-and-jvp/
 Bryan Pietsch, “’From the River to the Sea’: Why a Palestinian Rallying Cry Ignites Dissent,” The Washington Post, November 14, 2023.
 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/original-party-platform-of-the-likud-party. The Jordan River is the referent in the phrase “from the river to the sea” chant.
 A state without a formal constitution, Israel’s Basic Laws function as a de-facto constitution.
 Justin Papp, “House Censures Rep. Rashida Tlaib over Response to Israel-Hamas War,” Roll Call. November 7, 2023. https://rollcall.com/2023/11/07/house-censures-rep-rashida-tlaib-over-response-to-israel-hamas-war/
 Hamdan Mohammed al-Huraini, Settler-Soldier Militias threaten Susiya with Death and Displacement,” 972 Magazine, October 31, 2023. https://www.972mag.com/susiya-settler-soldier-militia-displacement/
 Yuval Abraham, “Expel all Palestinians from Gaza, recommends Israeli Government Ministry,” 972 Magazine, October 30, 2023. https://www.972mag.com/intelligence-ministry-gaza-population-transfer/
 Jonathan Adler, “South in to the Sinai: Will Israel Force Palestinians out of Gaza?” October 31, 2023. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/90869
 Patrick Kingsley, “Israel Quietly Pushed for Egypt to Admit Large Numbers of Gazans,” New York Times, Nov 5, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/05/world/middleeast/israel-egypt-gaza.html
 Danny Danon & Ram Ben-Barak, “The West Should Welcome Gaza Refugees; Europe and the U.S. accepted millions who fled earlier wars,” The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2023.
 See https://www.bhol.co.il/news/1616280
 There is another policy paper written by a right-wing think tank with close ties to Netanyahu—the Misgav Institute: it too calls for forced and permanent population transfer. See https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/90869.