In defence of ‘From the river to the sea’ and ‘Intifada’

12 May 2024
Emma Norton
A woman holds a placard at a pro-Palestine protest in Beunos Aires, Argentina, in 2021 PHOTO: Manuel Cortina/NurPhoto/AP

A campaign to crush free speech and Palestine activism is underway in Australia, and two popular pro-Palestine slogans are in the Zionists’ crosshairs: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “intifada”, an Arabic word meaning “uprising”. The systematic misrepresentation of these two phrases, commonly chanted at rallies, is all the Zionists can muster to support their slanderous claim that the pro-Palestine movement is inherently violent and antisemitic.

Former Liberal politician Josh Frydenberg, who was treasurer in the Morrison government, has skulked out of political retirement to lead the charge on this front. He is set to air a Sky News Australia documentary called Never Again: The Fight Against Antisemitism. But don’t let the title fool you; this piece is not about some brave struggle against bigotry. It is propaganda aimed at shielding a racist ethnostate from criticism, presented by a politician who was part of a government that weaponised bigotry to get into, and stay in, power.

University vice-chancellors have begun to consider a serious crackdown on democratic rights and free speech in response to the Gaza solidarity encampments across Australian campuses. Led by Sydney University’s Mark Scott, the Group of Eight universities have penned a letter to the attorney-general asking for advice on whether the slogans “From the river” and “intifada” are against the law—presumably as a prelude to banning the protests themselves.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has condemned the chants, saying he opposes the “From the river” slogan because it rejects a two-state solution. He also features in one of the interviews in Sky’s Never Again documentary. In a surprise to no one, Liberal and Labor politicians are able to reach across the aisle to agree that a genocide is fine, while the people opposing it are portrayed as the real purveyors of violence and bigotry.

The Zionist objection to the slogan “From the river to the sea” goes something like this: A free Palestine between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea would necessarily involve an end to the ethnostate of Israel. So far so true, but then they make an erroneous leap in logic. They assume that ending Israel would entail the elimination of Jews from historic Palestine. The slogan is therefore, in the Zionist mind, tantamount to calling for a genocide against Israeli Jews.

But “From the river to the sea” is not about expelling Jewish people from the lands of Palestine. Jewish people have a right to live as equals alongside their Arab neighbours in a free Palestine, as they did before the imposition of Israel in 1948. But an exclusionary Jewish state which aspires to racial purity and oppresses the Indigenous population is not compatible with equality between Jews and Palestinians. Most politicians now accept that Israel’s historical analogues should not have existed, as they were likewise incompatible with social equality and democratic values—from the apartheid state of South Africa to European fascist states.

Israel is a racist apartheid regime which stamps “Arab” on Palestinian passports, which has built Israeli-only roads and a massive dividing wall between its illegal settlements and Palestinian villages. Israel enforces dozens of discriminatory laws against Palestinians in its own territory, while it occupies the West Bank and Gaza, denying their populations all the basic rights that should come with citizenship of an independent Palestinian state, or of Israel.

It is Israel that aspires to complete a genocide between the river and the sea, and Israel that is physically attempting to carry this out. The historic rallying cry of Zionism was that Palestine was “A land without people for a people without land” and “A country without a people”, in the words of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. The Palestinians don’t—or shouldn’t—exist in the minds of Israel’s proponents, and destroying them is therefore simply a matter of bringing reality in line with Zionist ideology.

It was, after all, the Zionists who invented the phrase “From the river to the sea” to encapsulate their aim to gain complete and total control of Palestine. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, it “began as a Zionist slogan signifying the boundaries of Eretz Israel [the land allotted to Zionists during the British Mandate in Palestine from 1917 to 1948].” In 1977, Netanyahu’s Likud party used the slogan in their election manifesto, stating “between the sea and the Jordan there will be only Israeli sovereignty”.

Israel’s eventual political domination of all the land between the river and the sea, finalised when the IDF occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, is precisely what prompted Palestinians to adopt “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a demand. In the early 1990s, when the slogan became popular, it signified frustration with the Palestinian political leaders who in 1988 made peace with Israel, allowing it to continue its occupation and landgrabs. Today it resonates in cities across the world as a call for freedom and equality for all the inhabitants of historic Palestine.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” does what all great protest slogans do: it represents the aspirations of an oppressed people. For the diaspora, the Palestinian refugees scattered across the earth, it represents their right to return to their homeland, to the neighbourhoods from which they were violently expelled. For the people of Gaza, a concentration camp filled with refugees and their descendants, it represents the hope of breaking free of their prison, moving and living safely without the threat of annihilation. For the people of the West Bank, it represents an end to Israeli military occupation, to checkpoints, walls and aggressive settler violence. For the Palestinians who live within the borders of “Israel”, it represents the desire to not be second-class citizens, to live in a fair and equal society over all of historic Palestine.

The other contentious slogan, “intifada”, has been proudly adopted by the Palestine solidarity movement globally. It can be heard at almost any Palestine solidarity rally, and increasingly activists speak of a “global intifada” or “student intifada”. This terminology has made the Zionists apoplectic. The Australian Jewish Association’s Dr David Adler told Sky News, “Anyone with the remotest education would know intifada is a violent uprising...It involves suicide bombings and killing civilians in mass stabbings”.

The word “intifada” refers to the long history of Palestinian resistance, in extremely difficult conditions and with very little material support. The First Intifada began in 1987 after Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint killed four workers from Gaza. Sick of this inhuman treatment, the Palestinian people rose up. A wave of workers’ strikes and street demonstrations were followed by a violent crackdown by Israeli security forces. Iconic images of the Palestinian resistance emerged from those years: young Palestinians, heads wrapped in keffiyehs, throwing stones from slingshots at heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Palestinians didn’t have the means of inflicting destructive violence like Israel did, and largely that wasn’t their orientation. As historian Vashti Fox wrote in The Story of Palestine, “They rediscovered the tactics from the earlier period: refusal to pay taxes, the closure of shops, boycotts of Israeli products and mass street demonstrations”.

But given the overwhelming force and brutality of the Israeli military, the Intifada could not avoid violence. Between the end of the First Intifada and the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, Palestinians were sold out by their political leaders and ground down into an even worse situation than before—with Israel using the “peace” of the 1993 Oslo Accords to further expand its settlements and militarisation.

The result was that the Second Intifada, which began with similar mass demonstrations and civil disobedience, became far more militarised. Much the same can be observed about the history of other struggles against oppression: the “Troubles” in Ireland, anti-colonial independence movements from India to the Congo to Algeria, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and even the fight against slavery in the US.

All involved violence and terrorism by the oppressed against their far more violent and terroristic oppressors. This fact has always been used to try to invalidate the struggles of the oppressed. We must resist the current attempt to excuse Israel’s crimes by constant references to terrorism and Hamas. Supporting Palestinian intifadas isn’t about condoning Hamas’s attacks. Rather, it comes from the belief that ordinary people and their collective struggles are the key to ending the injustices meted out by the world’s ruling classes.

That’s why the word “intifada” has been so effortlessly adopted by millions of people around the world: because it is relevant to all of us. First, because our governments are so economically and politically committed to Israel that only a global uprising, like the one against the Vietnam War, could hope to shake that commitment. Second, because the issue of Palestine demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the capitalist system. It proves that an entire people can be cast aside, dehumanised, murdered and imprisoned because they are in the way of the imperialist machinations of capitalist ruling classes. Such a system has no right to exist, and an intifada is the only appropriate response.

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