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From the River to the Sea Is Genocidal, Actually
It's that simple.
As I have made rancorously clear on the podcast, the horrors of 10/7 and the dispiriting reaction to them in prominent corners of Western intelligentsia have sapped my ability to feign respect towards bad-faith, bullshit-hosing, willfully- obfuscating massacre apologists. One recently-lively line of pseudo debate is over the meaning behind the apologists’ favorite chant: “from the river to the sea.” Is it a catchy call for genocide or merely a benign, heartfelt assertion that Palestinians, too, deserve civil liberties1? Who’s to say? Let the controversy be taught. Let the think pieces be penned.
Except that there is an answer. It’s not complicated. It’s an unequivocal call for the eradication of Jews from the land between the river and the sea. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free…from Jews. It’s that simple. The faux intellectual search for non-existing nuances is a deliberate attempt by the cadre of apologists to muddle the phrase’s original meaning. It wishes (or washes) away an inconvenient brutality that lies in the hearts of the allies they dare not disavow.
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The truth of this phrase is so obvious that getting into an argument about it might be the only thing more drearily pointless than debating creationists. Yet two friends (one of whom may or may not be my partner in this blog) cruelly goaded me over drinks (birthday drinks, I might add) by intimating that my own reluctance to debate the palpably true with the pathologically dishonest2 is veritably tantamount to the aggressive debate-aversion of the illiberal left. That’s low. The lowest. But you know what? FINE, YOU WIN!
(The following is the text chain I sent in response to said goading.)
1. Israel is founded in '48, with UN support, following the UN partition plan. Its territory is small and Arab countries object — ie. try to destroy it immediately. Israel wins that war and survives, its territory expands a bit beyond the partition plan. There is no occupation at this point.3
2. In 1967 Arab countries led by Egypt try to destroy Israel again (I mean literally destroy) and lose. Israel wins this war so resoundingly it ends up taking over Arab territories: the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan from Syria. (The Sinai peninsula is also a source of recurring tensions with Egypt and is occupied earlier during the Suez crisis.)
3. West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai go under "occupation" — which is a legal term under international law, not a moral judgement. It refers to a territory that isn't fully annexed by the triumphant state in a land dispute, but is kept under military rule for (1) tactical considerations, like security buffers, or (2) future negotiation leverage.
4. With the exception of religious settler zealots, most Israelis agree that these territories would be ceded to Palestinian rule under peace agreements. Indeed, they have been!
5. Sinai is ceded to Egypt as part of a peace agreement in 1979.
6. Most of the West Bank is given to semi-autonomous Palestinian rule in the 1993 Oslo accords, in preparation for full statehood (once a full peace agreement is reached).
7. Gaza is unilaterally returned to Palestinian autonomous rule in 2005, with the Israeli military uprooting all Jewish settlements from the area (at great domestic cost, risking a civil war). Within about a year, in Gaza’s first and only election, Hamas wins an electoral victory, followed by a violent coup. Members of Hamas’ opponents, the Fatah party, are thrown off buildings.
8. So what is the "occupation" at this point? Legally, it only -- only! -- applies to the buffer zone between the autonomous Palestinian Authority territory in the West Bank and the Israeli border.
In other words, Gaza is under Palestinian rule, not occupied. The West Bank is partly under Palestinian rule and partly under Israeli occupation.
This is a map of the West Bank divided into A, B, C territories:
A (bright red) = full Palestinian Authority control.
B (dark red) = cooperative rule as buffer.
C (ugly yellow) = occupied territory with some Jewish settlements.
Territorially speaking, the peace talks are almost entirely about the exact way in which the C land mass is going to be divided. (And both sides largely agree on most details.)
9. In the 2000 Camp David summit, Israel (under PM Ehud Barak) offers to cede most C territories and the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. They reject the offer.
10. In 2008 Israel offers even more territory to the Palestinians (under PM Ehud Olmert). Palestinians reject this offer.
11. In the years after Hamas takes over Gaza, the Palestinian Authority ruling the West Bank (led by Mahmoud Abbas) refuses any attempts to gain more independence. Why? Because the Israeli army was the only force keeping Hamas at bay in the West Bank. (Reminder: when Hamas took over Gaza, they slaughtered members of Abbas' party, Fatah/PLO).
12. So where does that leave us? The occupation that Israel is actually responsible for is only half of only the West Bank. Multiple Israeli governments (not all!) have tried to cede that territory back to Palestinians. The Palestinian government refuses time after time after time. (We can get to why later.)
13. Serious peace seekers understand that the only relevant area of dispute is the actual occupation, which is C territories, which Israel wants to cede.
14. So finally we get to the point: propaganda.
15. In rejection of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, part of the Palestinian movement, the part that didn't want an agreement, but wanted the full eradication of Israel, adopts "from the river [West Bank] to the sea [Gaza]" as a call to action. The original context of this phrase was not liberation of occupied territories, but rejection of the legitimacy of Israel at large. The state shouldn't exist, period.
16. If you listen to Palestinian and Arab media, they make it explicit: the goal isn't peace, but the extirpation of the colonizing Jewish state. And the “Jewish” part isn’t tangential, but overt and central. Again, it's not about the C territories, which is the actual occupation, it's about the whole damn country.
17. Similarly, the Palestinian movement and the Arab world use the words "occupation" and "colonialism" in intentionally slippery ways. On the one hand we all agree that there is an occupation (C territories). On the other, activists will start talking about Haifa, Tel Aviv, Be'er Seba and Eilat as part of that occupation.
They aren't talking about the actual occupation, they mean all of Israel.
Here's Hamas-run kindergarten kids putting on a play celebrating the day Palestine is liberated from the river to the sea:
Notice the cities that are "free and Arab":
18. Similarly, all pro Palestinian spokesfolk and representatives, as well as many prominent media people, have referred to the people who were slaughtered on the 10/7 Holocaust as "settlers" and "colonizers."
The people slaughtered were all from the Gaza Envelope, which is 100 percent part of Israel by any understanding of international law. Not part of Gaza. Certainly not part of the West Bank settlements (on the other side of the country).
The only reason they refer to them as colonizers is by the logic that all of Israel is a colonial settlement that needs to be abolished.
Which, again, they say openly in all Arab media. Which, again, is the intended meaning of "from the river to the sea."
19. Another smuggler's trick you'll encounter is the mention of the "1948 occupation." There was no occupation in 1948. There was the founding of the state of Israel under the authorization and legitimization of the United Nations. The only occupation began in 1967, and the scope of that occupation has been reduced significantly by Israel (see points 3-8).
(Another version of this is "70 years of Israeli occupation." 70 = Israel itself is an illegitimate occupation. I.e. Israel itself should be abolished.)
20. This is how you get the line that "there are no civilians in Israel." It's a very, very, very common line in Arab and "Pro-Palestinian" scholarship and media.
(I use scare quotes because I think actual Palestinians are deeply harmed by this precept, but we can discuss this question separately.)
These screenshots are from this week. But this is old, standard stuff going back decades.
21. So to conclude, "from the river to the sea" has always been used in Palestinian context (for years and years) to mean "no two states," just one. One Palestinian rule from the river to the sea. No Israel, because all Israelis are occupiers who should be banished or killed.
Again, just one recent example. This is a Fatah/PLO council member (not Hamas!) using “from the river to the sea” to mean the full eradication of Israel (which is, again, the way it's always been understood in Arab media). He also adds that he wishes that the same slaughter that happened on 10/7 takes place around the West Bank.
From Hamas' leadership declarations in 2021:
"the conflict can end only with the implementation of the promise of victory and control that Allah gave us [...] The full liberation from the sea to the river. [...]"
"Our disagreement with [the peace plans] is that they are settling for the Western side of Palestine being for Jews and the Eastern side for the Palestinians -- what is known as the two state solution.. we must not relinquish a single inch of our land."
And bonus from the same conference:
"We have a registry of Israeli apartments and institutions, educational institutions and schools, gas stations, power stations, sewage systems, and we have no choice but to get ready to manage them. [We believe that] the disappearance of Israel [will come within a few years] and will be an unprecedented historic event."
Here’s Hamas’ head of international relations Mousa Abu Marzouk:
Here’s Khaled Meshaal, one of Hamas’ founding leaders from 2023.
But sure, it’s about colonization, right?
A proposition denied by nobody but the most revolting faction of the Israeli Messianic movement, whom I feverishly deplore.
Although I (Vanessa) can neither confirm nor deny that I am indeed the co-host in question, if I were, I didn’t doubt Adaam’s assertion that this phrase’s meaning was in fact crystal clear (and not debatable) — but I needed the context to understand why (and spread the word to my fellow ignorant Americans). Machiavellian tactics may have been employed to, hopefully, noble ends.
The expanded territories are annexed by Israel and recognized by the armistice. Egypt and Jordan expand into territories marked up for Arab control by the ‘47 partition plan: Jordan occupies The West Bank, Egypt occupies Gaza. In terms of international law, the only occupation active at this point is under Jordan and Egypt control.