‘From the river to the sea’ and the decolonisation of our collective future

True freedom between the river and the sea can only be achieved by breaking free from settler colonialism and the nation-state.

FILE - Protesters gather for a pro-Palestinian demonstration, in Rome, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. The Jordan River is a winding, 200-plus-mile run to the east of Israel and the West Bank. The sea is the glittering Mediterranean to its west. But a phrase about the space in-between, “from the river to the sea,” has become a battle cry with new power to roil Jews and pro-Palestinian activists in the aftermath of Hamas’ murderous rampage across southern Israel Oct. 7 and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)
Protesters gather for a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Rome on October 28, 2023 [File: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo]

“From the river to the sea, Israel will be free.”

OK, that is not the way it is supposed to go, is it? But at this moment of war and mass death, this proposition is worth reflecting on: Palestine cannot be free without Israel – or at least the Israelis – being free. True freedom between the river and the sea can only be achieved by breaking free from the chains of settler-colonialism but also the narrow bounds of the nation-state.

Before I explain further, let me get into the current debate over the slogan “river to the sea”.

When most Israelis, and no doubt a significant number of Palestinians, hear the phrase “river to the sea,” they imagine it in exclusivist terms. This is not surprising.

The zero-sum understanding of the nation-state – a specific territory under the exclusive control of one national community, has been the determinative communal identity for at least four centuries. Its logic is as simple as it is violent: if this territory belongs to my group, it cannot belong to yours.

Not every country’s identity and politics are based on this logic, but many are. Even countries with a long tradition of intercommunal tolerance can rapidly veer towards chauvinism.

The dynamics are even clearer in settler-colonial societies, where the settler community has to conquer the territory and subdue or expel the Indigenous population in order to build its own society. Genocide is more often than not a core experience of this process.

Israel is, of course, the quintessential settler-colonial society; yet it is also one whose maximalist impulse has yet to be realised. Palestinians have not been reduced to a manageably small minority who can be given formal political rights and then ignored, repressed and extracted without meaningful resistance – as was the fate of Indigenous Americans and Australians.

Given the violence inherent to colonialism, Indigenous resistance has naturally been imagined by settler societies as the mirror image of their eliminationist impulses and policies: We want them gone and will commit whatever violence is necessary to achieve that goal, so they must want and would do the same. Not surprisingly, when resistance does take the form of mass violence, as happened on October 7, that imagination is powerfully reinforced.

In this context, when most Zionist Israelis and Israel supporters hear the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, they hear “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people to replace it with a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”. The fact that some Palestinians, particularly Hamas, have leaned hard into a violently exclusivist connotation of the phrase only serves to reinforce the idea.

But Hamas has never represented most Palestinians, despite the concerted efforts of the movement and successive Israeli governments (for very different reasons) to elevate its status. Its popularity in, if not control over, Gaza had waned significantly before the October 7 attack.

Into this deeply dysfunctional mix enters Representative Rashida Tlaib, currently the only Palestinian American member of the United States Congress. Along with her colleague Ilhan Omar and occasionally other members of “The Squad”, she has been the only national political voice advocating unhesitatingly for Palestinian rights.

For the vast majority of her congressional colleagues and most who describe themselves as “pro-Israel”, Tlaib’s use of the “river to the sea” slogan permanently marked her as an enemy of Israel. This was why, on November 6, she was officially censured by the House of Representatives.

Of course, Palestinians are not the only ones advocating a “river-to-sea” discourse. It has more or less been the official policy of the Israeli state since 1967, when it occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Since then, every Israeli government has pushed for the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, rendering the two-state solution an impossibility well before the Oslo peace process began.

Within the Israeli political space, from the far-right to the liberal left, the idea of sharing the land with the Palestinians as equals was never on the table.

The problem Israel has faced – like other settler-colonial powers – has been that Indigenous populations rarely if ever go gentle into that good night. Revisionist Zionism founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky would not have disagreed with Tlaib’s argument in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, that the “suffocating, dehumanising conditions” of permanent occupation inevitably “lead to resistance”.

Exactly a century ago, in his 1923 manifesto, The Iron Wall, he advocated overwhelming Jewish power to turn Palestine from the river to the sea into a Jewish ethnostate precisely because of the inevitability of Palestinian resistance.

Regardless of whose side one is on, as long as the understanding of the “river-to-sea” discourse is filtered through the prism of the inherently colonial nation-state, one’s imagination of other possibilities will be highly constrained. And a far more expansive imagination is precisely what is most desperately needed today, not only to establish freedom, justice and peace for all the inhabitants of Palestine/Israel in the midst of the present horror, but to address humanity’s myriad existential problems, in which the Israeli occupation is deeply embedded.

In that regard, Tlaib’s argument – echoed by innumerable Palestinian activists and their allies, including many Jews – that “from the River to the Sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate” represents a radically post-nationalist imagination of the future in Palestine and Israel. In fact, it is one that Palestinians on the front lines of the occupation, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activists, have been putting into practice, however tentatively and against overwhelming force, for decades, as anyone who is engaged in solidarity work in the occupied territories will attest.

To share a communal meal in Nabi Saleh or Bil’in, Atwani or the Jordan Valley after a day spent planting or harvesting olive trees, walking children to school, facing off against Israeli settlers, bulldozers or tear gas – and now to struggle daily together in the US and across the West, is to repeat an experience common to the Freedom Riders, the multi-racial African National Congress, and others who struggled for freedom.

Intercommunal solidarity and joint action towards a common future were central to all these struggles, as they pushed for imagining possibilities for sharing land, resources and power that previously seemed naïve, far-fetched or even dangerous.

Every day, more and more Jews and others join Palestinians in causing precisely the sort of “good trouble” that previously helped end – however imperfectly – apartheid in America and South Africa, and formal colonial rule across the Global South. There is a growing awareness, particularly among young people, that the stakes of Gaza extend beyond Palestine and Israel, representing the front lines of a battle for the future, for the possibility of humanity not being engulfed by growing violence and inequality as we veer towards ever more deadly threats to our collective survival.

For those still trapped inside binary identities and safely ensconced in an increasingly psychopathic global capitalist system, a free Palestine from the river to the sea – indeed, a truly free, equal and sustainable world – remains an unthinkable proposition.

But as the latest wave of violence confirms, Israel cannot be free until Palestine is free, and the price of that freedom is real decolonisation. This means the creation of a political order, whatever its name or form, in which all people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are accorded the same fundamental rights and freedoms.

In the face of the horrors of Gaza, we should be working to encourage real decolonisation not just in Israel/Palestine, but globally, before the violence engulfs us all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.