m31 years ago, on December 9, 1987, the First Intifada erupted in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp in protest of Israel’s occupation. It was that dramatic uprising that gave birth to Hamas and the rallying cry among Palestinians: "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
To the newborn Hamas, the chanted slogan offered a recipe for political mobilization and militant resistance. But to ordinary Palestinians, it sparked a nostalgic longing for a paradise lost, and a symbolic yet desperate appeal to end the occupation and live free in their homeland.
The irony is that it wasn’t the Palestinians, but the Zionists, who first invented this "from the river to the sea" mantra. And that was nearly half a century before the First Intifada and the birth of Hamas.
For centuries, "Palestine" was an abstract concept rooted in historical and biblical imagination, rather than a defined geography with delimitated political borders. Up to the 20th century, Arabs and Jews had a vague geographical notion of the boundaries demarcating the land they called "Palestine," or "Eretz Israel," or the "Holy Land."
Early Zionist leaders spent years debating whether Eretz Israel was the land "east of the Jordan," or "west of the Jordan," or "west of the Mediterranean Sea" or "between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan." As David Ben-Gurion pointed out in 1918: "There are significant differences of opinion on the question of the boundaries of Eretz Israel, and it is not easy to determine absolutely what Eretz Israel is, and what is not."
This was bound to change after WWI, when world powers convened at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to discuss the division of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. Representatives from the Middle East included the Zionist Organization, and the Arabs led by Emir Faisal.
The Arab side demanded a united Arab kingdom ruled by Faisal. The Palestinians, whose future was at stake, were not represented in Paris, though they made clear their demand that Palestine was an Arab country. They referred to it as ‘Southern Syria,’ on the hope that it would be integrated into Faisal’s Arab Kingdom of Syria.
To their disappointment, Faisal, who had negotiated a secret agreement with Chaim Weizmann the year before, in which he accepted the Balfour Declaration in return for Zionist support of his Arab Kingdom in Damascus, and which was signed in January 1919, did not demand that Palestine be included in his future Arab State.
The Zionist Organization was the only party that came up with a clear delimitation of the boundaries of Palestine, or Eretz Israel. They even presented the negotiators with a modern map demarcating those natural boundaries, which they detailed as follows:
"In the North - from a point on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, close to and south of Sidon, continued along the watershed toward the foothills of the Lebanon Mountains, to EI-Qara’un Bridge on the lower Litany River. From there it will continue to El-Bira, along the line that separated the basins of El-Koran and Tiam streams. From here the line will continue south, between the eastern and the western slopes of Mount Hermon, to a point close to and west of the town of Bait Jan. From there the line will continue east, along the watershed of the Muganiya River, close to and west of the Hijaz Railway. In the East - a line that run close to and Io miles west of the Hejaz Railway, to the Gulf of Aqaba. In the West - The Mediterranean Sea."
In other words, the Zionists demanded not only a Palestine stretching "from the river to the sea," but also one that would include both banks of the Jordan River, which they claimed was a fair representation of historic and biblical Eretz Israel.
When shortly after the British Mandate drew an imperial line along the Jordan River separating Palestine from Transjordan, the Zionist Organization was compelled to narrow down its imagined boundaries to "west of the river, east of the sea."
In protest, the Revisionist Zionist Alliance, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, broke away with the Zionist Organization and founded the New Zionist Organization, demanding "the realization of a state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan River."
In nutshell, the notion of "Palestine from the river to the sea" is nothing but the boundaries of Eretz Israel as imagined by the first Zionists. The notion was enshrined in the founding charter of the ruling Likud party, which states that "between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty."
One can thus entertain the chilling irony that Hamas owes its cherished slogan to the Zionists. After all, what is "free Palestine from the river to the sea" but a utopian parody of "Greater Israel"? More ironic perhaps, the slogan embodies a nostalgic cry to return to the British Mandate era, when Palestine was anything but free.
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, and thanks to Israel’s occupation and rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a "free Palestine from the river to the sea" has become a reality on the ground. The tragedy is that, from the river to the sea, only one people is free.
Seraj Assi is the author of the recently published The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimaging Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2018). Twitter: @Serajeas
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