‘From the River to the Sea’: Palestine’s historic struggle to share the land versus Israeli rejectionism

From the river to the sea

First published at Their Anti-imperialism and Ours.

The slogan "From the river to the sea", which as been raised at pro-Palestine demonstrations around the world, has attracted a great deal of ignorant criticism. In media commentary and on talk shows, the slogan is attacked as a call for “the destruction of Israel,” evidence that the Palestinians do not want peace and reject any compromise with Israel, or even more colourfully, a call for “genocide”, for “driving the Jews into the sea.”

The only Palestinian in US Congress, Rashida Tlaib, was condemned in a vote by the majority of US lawmakers for using the slogan, while they actively encourage and facilitate an actual genocide against the Palestinians, as Tlaib had earlier noted. The censure resolution called the phrase “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” [my emphasis]. Tlaib responded eloquently to this disgraceful slander.

Similarly, Australian right-wing commentator Peta Credlin falsely asserted in the November 12 Daily Telegraph that “tens of thousands of Australians have been marching in favour of what would amount to a new Holocaust, the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of millions of Jews ‘from the river to the sea’.”

From the river to the sea refers to the entire historic area of Palestine, that is, from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. This entire area is currently ruled by Israel, either as ‘Israel proper’, as the occupied Palestinian West Bank, or as the besieged and sealed off Gaza concentration camp for Palestinians, currently being bombed to ash.

In other words, right now, the state of Israel, which is a state of the Jewish people (according to the ‘Declaration of Independence’, the Basic Laws and the nation-state law), rules ‘from the river to the sea’ as an apartheid state, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem and even former Israeli ambassadors to Apartheid South Africa. Moreover, the view that Israel must rule everywhere from the river to the sea and not allow any Palestinian mini-state is engraved into the charter of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Likud Party and all the other parties of the dominant Israeli right.

So, the first question is, do those critics of the slogan when raised by Palestinians also condemn the actual racist imposition of Israeli rule everywhere ‘from the river to the sea’, and do they recognise that long-term, incremental genocide against the Palestinian people has been the actual practice in this region for 75 years, and not a mere slogan?

And the second question is, given that the Palestinian people are Indigenous to this entire region between the river and the sea, and still live, despite Israeli efforts, in all parts of it, why are they offended by a slogan that calls for Palestinians living everywhere from the river to the sea to be “free”? Do they believe that Palestinians should only be free in some parts of Palestine, and slaves in other parts? Where do they recommend Palestinians not be free?

Is it really a difficult or genocidal concept that in no part of Palestine should Palestinians continue to be unfree, occupied, dispossessed, locked in bantustans, daily humiliated, starved, killed with impunity, and every couple of years massacred in large numbers and buried under rubble?

Those who think that Palestinians everywhere being free requires Jews going “into the sea” ought to both read up on the actual long-term program of the Palestinian liberation movement, as well as broadening their political horizons and imagination.

At the same time, if one merely think that Palestinians everywhere being free means “the destruction of Israel,” then perhaps they might want to define what they mean by “Israel” and what it is about Israel that may be “destroyed” by Palestinian freedom, because in a sense they are right — freedom for Palestinians from the river to the sea, and equal rights for all inhabitants: Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Israelis and Palestinians — would indeed “destroy” a sectarian state based explicitly on Jewish supremacy.

When Black South Africans fought for freedom in South Africa, they did not specify that they should only be free in certain bantustans as defined by the Apartheid authorities. Their victory for black freedom throughout every part of the land did indeed lead to the “destruction” of the white supremacist Apartheid state of South Africa, with the establishment of equal political rights for all; it did not require “genocide” of white South Africans by “driving them into the sea.”

The context of the discussion

Alright, I hear. But that is just some ideal, surely the reality is that when the Palestinians raise that slogan, they “really” mean Palestine all for themselves. “Where would the Israelis go?” I often hear, from so many who are not well-read on the last half-century’s history. And even if some admit that Israeli leaders are “just as bad,” that doesn’t matter; whether used by right-wing Israelis or Palestinian freedom fighters, the slogan rejects the holy grail of the … “two-state solution,” which, apparently, is “the only game in town.”

A few pointers on this, to be elaborated on below:

  • The “reality” is that it is the Palestinians who have always called for an equal democratic state everywhere ‘from the river to the sea’, since the 1960s, and it is Israeli leaders, of all political stripes, who have always rejected it.
  • The “two-state solution” — a division of the region ‘from the river to the sea’ into ‘Israel’ with 78 percent of the land and ‘Palestine’ with 22 percent of it, when the populations living there are roughly equal now, and even this does not include the millions of refugees from the 1948 Nakbah — is so self-evidently far from a just solution that I don’t see why it needs explaining; yet, despite that …
  • … it has been the Palestinian leadership that has long ago accepted the two-state scenario, in some form since the 1970s, whether as a stepping stone to the optimal solution, or a “solution” in itself, while it has been Israel that has always rejected it and actively worked to destroy any possibility of it.
  • Because even though it is a manifestly unfair proposal to Palestine, if combined with the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the ‘Israeli’ 78 percent of the land, and full equality for Palestinians who reside there (they are currently second-class citizens), it could still be a modified version of Palestinian freedom ‘from the river to the sea’; and any sovereign state of the Indigenous population with the name Palestine (as opposed to a string of semi-autonomous bantustans), even on a small area, still politically threatens the idea that the land belongs to Israel.

We also need to remember: there is no equality in all this discussion: Palestinians are the Indigenous people of all Palestine; Israel exists as a result of the colonial dispossession of the Palestinian people since 1948. Surely, it should not be up to the Palestinians to continually be forced to “accept” Israel’s — their coloniser’s — “right to exist” as a condition for Palestinian freedom or even as a condition for merely opening discussion on the possibility of an emasculated Palestinian mini-state; rather, it should be the colonising power prevailed upon to recognise the sovereignty of the Palestinian people in Palestine.

In the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine, the one third of the population who were by then Jewish immigrants (alongside a small Indigenous Jewish population) were awarded 56 percent of the land; the two-thirds Palestinian majority were awarded 43 percent; and so naturally the Palestinians rejected this outrageous proposition. It is worthwhile noting that in 1946 the Arab governments had proposed an alternative plan: a united democratic state where “all citizens would be represented in the guarantee of civil and political rights” where Jews would have a “permanent and secure position in the country with full participation in its political life on a footing of absolute equality with the Arabs.”

Israel reacted with the 1948 Nakbah, or Palestinian catastrophe, carried out via massive ethnic cleansing, a string of horrific massacres and expulsions, and the destruction of 400 towns, during which the new state of Israel expanded its rule to 78 percent of Palestine, while of the remaining 22 percent, the West Bank went under Jordanian control and Gaza under Egyptian control. The 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed were never allowed to return, despite UN Resolution 194 of 1948 which demands it; they and their descendants now number nearly 10 times that figure.

‘For a democratic, secular Palestine’ for Christians, Muslims and Jews – al-Fatah, 1969

After Israel attacked all its neighbours in 1967 and seized the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza (as well as the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian Golan), it created a new situation, by bringing all of historic Palestine together under one government – a government that did not represent them.

In the face of this, Yassir Arafat’s al-Fateh organisation, which had become the dominant faction within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), in January 1969 put forward the historic Palestinian program “for a progressive, democratic, secular Palestine in which Christian, Moslem and Jew will worship, work, live peacefully and enjoy equal rights.” This was adopted by the 5th Palestine National Council (PNC) in February 1969 as “an independent democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians, Moslems, Christians and Jews.” These formulations meant for all of Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’. Counterposed to the Zionist program of Israeli Jewish supremacy for the river to the sea.

Then in May 1969, another of the PLO’s major organisations, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, put forward a slightly different version of the same: ‘dismantling the Zionist entity and establishing a popular, democratic Palestinian state in which Arabs and Jews would live together without discrimination,” ie from the river to the sea, emphasising the two national groups rather than the three religions. Whichever way you look at it, a profoundly democratic solution.

This is the historic Palestinian program, never renounced; it is not recent, it is well over half a century old. The slander about Palestinians wanting to “drive the Jews into the sea” simply has no relation to anything. Try not to parrot it, unless you want to look like an ignoramus.

Given the brutal Israeli military occupation, armed struggle to achieve this democratic, secular Palestine was the natural recourse of the Palestinian resistance, as has always been the case in anti-colonial struggles, and is a right recognised by the UN.

However, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, PLO leader Yassir Arafat offered the “olive branch” as an alternative the “gun” as a road to achieve this vision, using the language of invitation to the Israeli Jewish population to walk together down the path of peace:

… Why therefore should I not dream and hope? For is not revolution the making real of dreams and hopes? So let us work together that my dream may be fulfilled, that I may return with my people out of exile, there in Palestine to live with this Jewish freedom-fighter and his partners, with this Arab priest and his brothers, in one democratic State where Christian, Jew and Muslim live in justice, equality and fraternity.

Let us remember that the Jews of Europe and the United States have been known to lead the struggles for secularism and the separation of Church and State. They have also been known to fight against discrimination on religious grounds. How can they then refuse this humane paradigm for the Holy Land? How then can they continue to support the most fanatic, discriminatory and closed of nations in its policy?

In my formal capacity as Chairman of the PLO and leader of the Palestinian revolution I proclaim before you that when we speak of our common hopes for the Palestine of tomorrow we include in our perspective all Jews now living in Palestine who choose to live with us there in peace and without discrimination.’

In my formal capacity as Chairman of the PLO and leader of the Palestinian revolution I call upon Jews to turn away one by one from the illusory promises made to them by Zionist ideology and Israeli leadership. They are offering Jews perpetual bloodshed, endless war and continuous thraldom.

We offer them the most generous solution, that we might live together in a framework of just peace in our democratic Palestine.

He ended this Martin Luther King style speech announcing that “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

Origins of the Palestinian mini-state strategy

But of course, power in today’s imperialist world being what it is, sometimes the oppressed learn that a degree of pragmatism is required, whether just or not. Israel and the United States rejected this idea of a democratic state with equal rights for all peoples of Israel/Palestine; and it was a tough sell to convince the majority of Israeli Jews, who were already privileged with an ethno-supremacist state to themselves in 80 percent of Palestine, to share it with the Palestinian people on a democratic basis as proposed by the PLO.

As a result, we saw the rise of the concept of a Palestinian mini-state established in any part of Palestine that could be liberated first. This was heralded by the DFLP, which in July 1971 called for the setting up of “a dependable, liberated fulcrum in the occupied territories that would ensure the continuity of the Palestinian revolution.” The PLO’s ‘10-Point Program’, accepted at the 12th Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting of June 1974, on the one hand, continued to reject UN Resolution 242 (signed by Egypt, Jordan and Syria) which treated the Palestinian issue merely as a refugee problem rather than one of national self-determination. However, some of the language did begin to hint that a mini-state could be accepted in part of Palestine as a phase in the struggle for the whole.

In particular, Point 2 reads:

The Palestine Liberation Organization will employ all means, and first and foremost armed struggle, to liberate Palestinian territory and to establish the independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated. This will require further changes being effected in the balance of power in favor of our people and their struggle.

Point 3 did emphasise that the PLO would reject any deal that forced it to recognise Israel or forfeit the right of return of Palestinian refugees or their right to self-determination; and Point 4 emphasised that “any step taken towards liberation is a step towards the realization of the Liberation Organization’s strategy of establishing the democratic Palestinian State specified in the resolutions of the previous Palestinian National Councils,” ie, a democratic, secular Palestine from the river to the sea.

However, since Point 2 noted that the struggle would be conducted by “all means,” even if armed struggle was then considered “first and foremost,” there was much to play with. The idea of establishing a Palestinian authority over any part of Palestine that can be liberated first was generally understood to mean the 22 percent of Palestine newly occupied by Israel  in 1967, ie, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza; and it was clear that armed struggle was necessary to evict the illegal Israeli occupation from these territories; while the implication that other forms of struggle could be used came to be understood to mean that, if a Palestinian authority were established in the 1967 territories, then the ongoing struggle for the democratisation of the 78 percent ‘1948 Israel’, and for the right to return of Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948 to all of Palestine, could take the road of civil and political resistance, negotiations, diplomatic struggle, over a longer period. So while full “peace” with Israel, “recognition” of Israel, was out of the question, effectively a long term truce could be established.

While all this is only implied in the 1974 program, the wording was necessarily a compromise between various PLO organisations. In practice, Arafat’s dominant al-Fatah organisation and PLO organisations allied to it (eg at that time, the DFLP) were interpreting this in the most generous way by the late 1970s (while a ‘Rejection Front’ of more radical PLO organisations opposed to any compromise also formed). The DFLP again pioneered the change in 1975 with its call for “a fully sovereign Palestinian nation-state under the leadership of the PLO” in the occupied territories, coupled with the right to return of refugees to all parts of Palestine. The 13th PNC of 1977 upgraded the “fighting authority” of the 12th PNC with Palestinians establishing “their own independent national State over their national soil.” In addition, the PNC emphasised “the importance of connecting and coordinating with the Jewish progressive and democratic forces inside and outside the occupied homeland, that struggle against Zionism.”

The PLO manoeuvrers with the ‘two-state solution’

But if even the most ‘moderate’ wing of the PLO still had its very strict red-lines (right of return, mini-state only a stage to full liberation and hence no recognition of ‘Israel’), soon after the mini-state direction was seized on by the Arab states, the Soviet Union and its allies and later by west European countries, and hardened into the two-state “solution”, which implied a permanent situation. In this view, if Israel allowed a Palestinian state to be set up in the 22 percent of Palestine legally deemed “occupied territories,” this should lead to mutual recognition between this large Israel and small Palestine, and the right of return of refugees to Israel itself was gradually downgraded – either to the return of “some” and “compensation” for others, or omitted altogether. This full-scale “two-state solution” could indeed be viewed as abandonment of Palestinian freedom “from the river to the sea.”

In between these two positions, the PLO-Fatah leadership knew it needed to diplomatically manoeuvre. Its position was essentially that if the Palestinian armed and diplomatic struggle could establish a democratic secular mini-state along with winning the right to return of refugees to the ‘Israel’ state, and a civil struggle within ‘Israel’ to end the ethnocratic, racist state and replace it with a democratic secular state succeeded, there would be no point having two democratic, secular states, so perhaps they would eventually form one; the return of refugees to Israel and “equality for Palestinian Arabs in Israel” will “eventually lead to an ultimate resolution of the Palestinian national question through the establishment of a single unified, democratic state on the entire land of Palestine, where equality will prevail between all citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious, or national backgrounds, including equality between the sexes.” The co-existence of the two states with a truce but with civil struggle for democracy may even be a necessary stage to win sufficient numbers of the Israeli working classes away from the paranoia that Zionist ideology is based on.

Looking back, many liberals claim that the PLO’s gradual acceptance of some kind of two-state scenario was a welcome abandonment of ‘from the river to the sea’, so if anyone raises that slogan today they must be extremists aiming to ‘wipe out Israel’ etc; likewise, many left critics, including within the PLO, also saw it as a capitulation and a rejection of liberation from the river to the sea. However, looked at in the way described above, the PLO’s gradual acceptance of a two-state transition phase was not an abandonment of Palestinian freedom 'From the River to the Sea'; but the essential component is the maintenance of the right to return of refugees from 1948.

In January 1976, a resolution (S/11940) was put to the UN Security Council by a number of Global South states calling for an independent state in Palestine in the occupied territories following Israeli withdrawal and recognition of “all states in the area.” The PLO expressed support for this motion, which was vetoed by the US (France supported the resolution while the UK abstained). Likewise, the PLO looked favourably at UN General Assembly Resolution 35/207 in 1980, which alongside its annual calls for full Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in 1967 and return of refugees, added support for the “establishment of its [the Palestinian people’s] independent state in Palestine.” The PLO also expressed support for similar proposals by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981, which included that Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian mini-state should result in “the safeguarding of the right of all States in the region to security, independent existence and development; the termination of the state of war and the establishment of peace between the Arab States and Israel.” These formulations left the 78 percent of Palestine to Israel (albeit with ongoing non-military struggle for democracy and refugee return). So this potentially massive concession sounds even less like “driving the Jews into the sea.”

Of course, Israel has always refused to withdraw from the occupied territories, and rejected any Palestinian state even in one inch of Palestine; and since the 1970s has gradually filled the West Bank with gun-toting, fanatic religious “settlers” (Israeli colonists) who steal large chunks of Palestinian land and murder with impunity, signifying Israel’s maximalist claim to the whole of Palestine. Indeed, it calls the West Bank ‘Judea and Samaria’, names for these regions from ancient Israeli history thousands of years ago. In 1980, Israel committed an act of international banditry when it formally annexed (as opposed to merely ‘occupying’) Palestinian East Jerusalem, which it had illegally seized in 1967 (it also annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, which is sovereign Syrian territory).

And since that time, Israel has been fully backed by the US in this arch-rejectionist position, even as most EU states have gradually adopted a two-state position; and both Israel and the US rejected any dealing with the PLO, which had been recognised by all Arab states (and by the UN General Assembly) as the “sole, legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people. While no country in the world recognised Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, or recognised it as Israel’s new “capital,” the Trump administration in the US finally made this highly illegal move in 2017, and the current Biden administration has not rescinded this gross violation of international law.

To re-state: since the late 1970s, Israel and the US have been the rejectionist states in relation to what became the international consensus, voted for overwhelmingly by the UN General Assembly every year, ie, that there should be a sovereign Palestine state with Jerusalem as its capital on 22 percent of Palestine – as if allowing the Indigenous people of their land a state on only one fifth of their land were some great generous concession to the Palestinians!

The Fez peace plan and the Palestinian Declaration of Independence

In 1982, following Israel’s horrifically murderous 3-month war against the Palestinians in Lebanon, the 12th Arab League Summit took place in the Saudi city Fez and put forward the Fez peace plan, for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, in exchange for implicit Arab recognition of Israel in its legal borders (ie, 78 percent of Palestine), the statement including “guarantees of peace between all States of the region, including the independent Palestinian State.” It called for the “inalienable and imprescriptible national rights” of the Palestinians without explicitly calling for return, but added a call for “the indemnification of those who do not desire to return,” implying those who did desire to must be allowed to. The PLO, and every Arab state except Gaddafi’s Libya, signed on to the plan.

Of course, this was met with Israeli and US rejection, and Israel made this graphic by immediately organising and facilitating the Sabra-Shatilla massacre of 3000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, via its proxy far-right Lebanese Phalange (the massacre was led by Elie Hobeika, later head of the pro-Assad wing of the Phalange).

The Palestinian Declaration of Independence (written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish) was proclaimed by Yasser Arafat on 15 November 1988 in Algiers, at the conclusion of the 19th Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting which had adopted this declaration by overwhelming majority. Significantly, the declaration cites UN resolution 181 of 1947 which had originally partitioned Palestine into a 56 percent Jewish state and 43 percent Arab’ state, thereby implicitly recognising Israel. This could actually be interpreted as an advance on the mini-state idea in today’s conditions, a claim for 43 percent of Palestine (including right of return to the rest) would be a far more just solution than the mere 22 percent given the relative population numbers between Israelis and Palestinians from the river to the sea; in practice though it tended to mean a more forceful attempt to achieve recognised Palestinian sovereignty on the 22 percent deemed “occupied.” Notably, in the spirit still of 1969, the declaration referred to Palestine being the “land of the three monotheistic faiths.”

In the UN General Assembly, the Palestinian declaration of independence was acknowledged (Resolution 43/177) by the overwhelming majority of member-states, with just two voting against: the US and Israel.

This was a hopeful time: in late 1987, the first Palestinian Intifada had broken out; thousands of Palestinian youth confronted the Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza with stones, but no guns; Israel of course reacted with mass murder. The world began to see a different Israel and Palestine. However, two world-historic events – the collapse of the East bloc and the USSR in 1989-1991, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the US-led war to defeat it in 1991, had catastrophic impacts on Palestine for reasons beyond the scope of this essay.

The fateful Oslo Accords

The result was further accommodation, despite the bold declaration of 1988; in 1993, the PLO/Fatah leadership accepted the Oslo process, involving recognition of Israel in exchange for a powerless Palestinian authority in just a fraction of the occupied territories from which Israel withdrew its troops (but not its overall control). Of course, this assumed this was only the first step, and that it would be followed by negotiations with Israel and the US over final borders, the status of Jerusalem, the question of refugees and so on, with the expectation that Israel would gradually withdraw from more and more of Palestine. In other words, the official PLO position was still for a Palestinian state in the full 22 percent; but whichever way one looks at it, it was a further massive concession to recognise Israel based entirely on trust.

While all former PLO support for the two-state scenario included the right of return of refugees to all Palestine/Israel – hence not necessarily contradicting ‘from the river to the sea’ – Oslo may be described as the first time the PLO/Fatah leadership effectively forfeited this. Of course, they continued to insist this was their policy, but by recognising Israel while the refugee issue was simply relegated to some future ‘final status’ talks, they were effectively relying on Israel’s good will on an issue Israel had always rejected.

Therefore those claiming now that the PLO had abandoned ‘from the river to the sea’ with the two-state ‘solution’, and that today it is only an ‘extremist’ or ‘Hamas’ slogan, are thereby glorifying the Oslo total capitulation as the model for peace. Importantly, Oslo was not only rejected by all other PLO components, but also met rejection from within Fatah, even from within the Fatah leadership. There is no doubt that the overwhelming consensus within the broader Palestinian liberation movement rejects the Oslo capitulation and continues to see Palestine as stretching from the river to the sea, whatever form it may take.

Of course, as many warned, Israel simply took full advantage, refusing to ever discuss any of these final status issues, and instead filling up the West Bank and Jerusalem with hundreds of thousands of illegal Israeli colonisers (now some 700,000) who have stolen half the territory and live like kings surrounding the separated, locked-in Palestinian bantustans where the Palestinian ‘Authority’ has zero real authority, where the people have zero rights within apartheid Israel, are constantly dispossessed, expelled, humiliated at checkpoints, and killed with impunity. It was this total and absolute Israeli betrayal of the false promises of Oslo that led directly to the outbreak of the second, much more violent, Intifada in 2000, and the rise of Hamas, a radical ‘Islamist’ formation outside of the PLO whose ideology and actions (initially its suicide bombings) would act to erode the PLO’s message of peace and co-existence since 1969 – to the advantage of the Israeli regime who used this as an ultra-hypocritical excuse to proclaim that it has no “partner in peace” from Palestine!

The ’Generous Offer’ charade of 2000

One important incident should be dealt with here: the claim often made by Zionists and their supporters that the PLO was offered “95 percent” of what they wanted by US president Clinton and Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000, but Arafat “walked away” from this “generous offer” and instead instigated the second Intifada.

The first issue is whether Arafat would have had any right to accept “95 percent” of what was only 22 percent of Palestine, when half the population of the region were now Palestinians, and – as made clear by Barak – with no right of return of the millions of refugees from the 1948 Nakbah. Surely, by any sense of fairness, any territorial compromise should be from the side that owns 78 percent of ethnically cleansed Palestine.

Secondly, the 95 percent figure did not include East Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley or the Israeli settlements, meaning it was more like 70 percent of the occupied territories, or about 15 percent of Palestine.

Third, the omission in the eyes of the illegal occupation regime of annexed Palestinian East Jerusalem is crucial. Israel had proclaimed this city to be its eternal “undivided” capital, rejecting either dividing or even sharing East Jerusalem (the idea of East Jerusalem as a shared capital of two states has been raised in many peace proposals). For anyone who has read about the situation beyond surface level, or has been there, it is clear that East Jerusalem is not optional to a Palestinian state, it is the geographic, economic and cultural heart of the West Bank; all roads lead to Jerusalem. Omitting Jerusalem simply means bantustanisation. Besides, annexed East Jerusalem had been expanded by Israel to some 70 square kilometres, with surrounding Israeli settlements choking the city considered also off-limits to Palestine. 

In fact, as Naseer Aruri, chancellor professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, explains, “the myth of the “generous offer” consisted of four enclaves, bisected by illegally built colonial settlements and bypass roads for Jews only, that would have prevented the Palestinians from ever establishing a viable, independent and contiguous state in any area between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Although the four cantons (northern West Bank, central West Bank, southern West Bank and Gaza) may have been called a “state”, the requirements of nation-states were sorely missing. It would have been a state without sovereignty, without geographic continuity and lacking control over its borders, airspace and economic and water resources. In fact, it would have consisted of 64 clusters as islands in the midst of Israel — a “state” existing within Israel, but not alongside Israel.”

Clearly, Clinton and Barak had aimed at Palestinian rejection of this appalling “offer.”

The Arab Peace Plan

The Saudi-launched Arab Peace Plan of 2002, again endorsed by the entire Arab League including the PLO, essentially re-stated the Fez Plan, but this time made recognition of Israel explicit and declared the Arab-Israeli conflict would be “over” if Israel withdrew from the territories it occupied in 1967 (including the Syrian Golan Heights) and allowed a Palestinian state there with East Jerusalem as its capital. On refugees, it merely called for “a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”

Of course, this was rejected by Israel and the US.

So clearly, decades later, Israel and the US are still the rejectionist states; the Palestinian leadership still officially aims for Palestinian freedom from the river to the sea in the most accommodating way possible; and in practice this is much worse, as the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority evolved under Oslo into little more than a tool of the Israeli occupation within the bantustans it is empowered to run, launching ‘security’ crackdowns on more militant Palestinian activists.


But what then of Hamas? Surely Hamas – Islamic Resistance Movement – aims for an “Islamic Palestine’ and is therefore also a rejectionist force? A rejectionist force born of Israeli colonisation, dispossession and brutality and PA accommodation, but rejectionist nevertheless, and in a way that threatens the Israeli Jewish population. Its early rhetoric and actions and its charter certainly suggest this.

While this would need a separate article to deal with, it is important to note in this context that Hamas would hardly be the first resistance organisation on Earth which began ‘extreme’ and then accommodated to reality. Notably, when this Arab Peace Plan was put up at the next Arab League Summit at Riyadh in 2007, and again re-endorsed by all states, Hamas, which had been elected to head the Palestinian Authority, abstained but did not vote against (Israel again rejected it as a non-starter).

This vote was not in isolation. Hamas renounced its suicide bombing in 2003, then more decisively in 2005, defeated Fatah in nationwide elections in 2006 for the Palestinian Authority, and put forward the famous ‘Hudna’, or ceasefire, proposals. Basically the Hudna is the same as the two-state proposal, but with long-term ceasefire replacing full peace with recognition. Hamas stated that the armed struggle was necessary to liberate the West Bank and Gaza, but if a Palestinian mini-state were established there with Jerusalem as its capital, Hamas would institute a 10-year ceasefire with Israel which could be extended to decades if Israel kept the peace, during which time civil struggle would continue for Palestinian freedom (including return) in Israel. This went hand in hand with statements by major Hamas leaders that their struggle was with Zionism and occupation, not with Jews, who they did not want to “drive into the sea,” and this was later instituted into their new political program. Even the question of recognising Israel was declared “a decision for the Palestinian people” in Hamas’ 2006 draft government program.

But that was a problem for Israeli leaders; Hamas was only useful for Israel as an ‘extremist’ pole which could justify continued Israeli rejectionism; a more pragmatic Hamas was a disastrous problem for Israel; Israel was so terrified of peace that it assassinated Hamas mediator Ahmed Jabari just after he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire, which he had been negotiating with Israeli mediator Gershon Baskin. Israel’s larger scale reaction was to lock up Gaza, where Hamas dominated, in a 16-year land, sea and air blockade, which reduced Gaza to conditions the UN described as “unliveable,” while regularly bombing the extremely densely packed sealed ghetto to ash and killing thousands of civilians. All this aimed, among other things, at the political regression of Hamas to what extremist Israeli leaders preferred as a ‘war partner’, an aim apparently achieved; and maintaining the division of 1967 Palestine between Gaza ruled by Hamas and the West Bank ruled by the pathetic PA. This nightmare situation also facilitated a more repressive Hamas-led internal regime in Gaza.

And the impacts of this reduction of Gaza to a bombed out concentration camp were evident in the gruesome violence that exploded into southern Israel on October 7, which has allowed Israel to attempt to carry out its actual long-term program: the complete ethnic cleansing of Gaza and the West Bank and achievement of the Likud program of Israeli supremacism from the river to the sea. Was this inevitable?

Gaza, the centrality of refugee return, and March of Return turning point

A likely turning point was the famous ‘March of Return’ movement in Gaza in 2018-2019. To understand this, it is important to revisit the key question of the right to return of Palestinian refugees. Perhaps Palestinians are “asking too much” to expect the right to return to 1948 Palestine (Israel) as well as a sovereign state in 22 percent of Palestine? In fact, the tiny figure of 22 percent can only be justified if the right to return is included. It is this above all allows acceptance of the two-state arrangement to still exist in the context of Palestinian freedom from the river to the sea (there is also the issue of the second-class citizenship of the Palestinian 20 percent of the population inside 1948 Israel).

And it is Gaza that highlights this more than anything. Even if we were, for arguments’ sake, to accept abrogation of UN resolution 194 and of elementary human rights according to which the right of refugees to return is non-negotiable, even if we were to ignore millions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere, the issue cannot be ignored in Gaza where it is central to understanding the disaster.

Talking about a Palestinian state in the West Bank “and the Gaza strip” represents a sharp imbalance. The West Bank is 5860 square kilometres; Gaza is 360 square kilometres; Gaza is therefore only around 6 percent of the occupied territories. Yet there are some 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 2.3 million in Gaza. The West Bank, if we include East Jerusalem, can be said to have some sense of viability as part of an independent state; but the Gaza “strip” does not.

This is not due to some accident; it is due to the fact that 80 percent of “Gazans” are not “Gazan”; they are refugees and their descendants who were expelled from what is now Israel in 1948. The towns and villages they were expelled from are largely those across the ‘border’ to the north and east of Gaza (indeed most within the borders of the proposed ‘Arab state’ in 1947 before Israel violated it). Such as those that were attacked on October 7. Palestinians in Gaza see the Israeli settlements in these regions as squatters on their stolen land. I don’t make this point to justify the horrific violence of that day, but it surely is one aspect of the causes of its fury, when those expelled from these regions broke out of the concentration camp.

Whatever one thinks of that fateful day – which in my view has been an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinian people, whatever the initial euphoria of ‘breaking the prison wall’ – it surely underlines the fact that return of refugees is not an added extra to the solution of the Palestine issue, but an essential component of it, unless the Palestinian state was to comprise some 50 percent of the land.

And this is where the March of Return comes in. In 2018-2019, thousands of Palestinians marched, with no guns in hand, against the wall that separates their prison from their lands inside Israel. These entirely peaceful mass demonstrations continued for a year, with the aim of telling the world, and the Israeli people, that ‘we are still here’. The response of the Zionist regime was to shoot to kill and maim; 266 Palestinians were massacred, including 50 children, while over 30,000 were wounded, including 3000 children. According to the UN, “in 2020, an estimated 10,400 people will suffer severe mental health problems in connection to the GMR demonstrations, and nearly 42,000 people will have mild to moderate problems. These figures include over 22,500 children.” It is stunning that this massive episode of Zionist terrorism has gone ignored.

It was almost certainly the point of no return. 

Indigenous sovereignty in Australia ‘from coast to coast’

‘From the river to the sea Palestine will be free’ thus expresses the view that ‘Palestine’ exists in all parts of Palestine; the sovereignty of the Indigenous population cannot simply be abolished. Regardless of what ‘state’ arrangements are made in the interim or even permanently, a ‘border’ locking 2 million Palestinian refugees into the Gaza ‘strip’ or ‘enclave’ (ie ghetto) is not a border for Palestine. Palestine lives in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, in Israel (1948 Palestine) and in the diaspora, in their right to return, mostly to Israel.

Does that abolish the right of the Israeli nation, which despite its violent origins, also exists there now (especially since the majority of the population were born there after 1948)? Well, not according the PLO position since 1969 or to any of the international agreements Palestine has ever signed, as has been well demonstrated above. But there is also another way of looking at this, when we consider the struggles of Indigenous peoples in other colonial settler states.

I will use the example of Australia where I live. Just as the Zionist colonisation of Palestine was based on the myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land,” so likewise the British colonisation of Australia was based on the myth of ‘terra nullius’, ie, empty land, not owned by anyone (a doctrine finally shot down by the Mabo High Court ruling of 1993).

The Aboriginal First Nations of Australia consider themselves to be ‘sovereign’ throughout Australia. Most left and progressive minded Australians and even much mainstream liberal opinion accepts this concept as meaning that ‘sovereignty was never ceded’, as we state in Acknowledgements to Country, and that the First Nations’ connection to their land is to all parts of their land, regardless of who now lives there and what political formations exist. Other than truly obscurantist reactionaries, no-one seriously believes the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty means that they aim to “drive non-Indigenous Australians into the sea.”

Not that White Australia is particularly enlightened; in the recent referendum, 60 percent of Australians voted against a proposal from the Aboriginal nations to establish a purely advisory Indigenous ‘Voice’ to parliament in the constitution to partially represent their sovereignty. In any case, the struggle continues, with First Nations pushing for something better than the rejected, meek ‘Voice’ – for a Treaty between the sovereign First Nations and the sovereign Australian nation that arose from the colony. Many Aboriginal Australians were also opposed to the ‘Voice’ for the opposite reason to most white voters: because it was such a weak proposal; they see a Treaty guaranteeing more serious representation and self-determination over their own affairs.

The nationwide First Nations dialogue that took place at Uluru in central Australia in 2017, that called for the process of ‘Voice-Truth-Treaty’, put the question of sovereignty this way in its famous ‘Statement From the Heart’:

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. … This sovereignty is spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

For those reading from outside Australia: sovereignty of “the Crown” is the quaint white colonial Australian way of saying the current Australian state, which is still, despite 122 years of independence, officially under the grotesque feudal leftover that presides over a country on the other side of the world. The sovereignty of the First Nations “co-exists” with that of “the Crown” everywhere in Australia, from coast to coast; their sovereignty does not only exist in some largely arid regions where they have won land rights struggles or in some regions with major concentrations of Aboriginal people.

The Uluru Statement From the Heart ends: 

We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Yassir Arafat’s 1974 statement to the UN likewise includes: 

We offer them [Israeli Jews] the most generous solution, that we might live together in a framework of just peace in our democratic Palestine.

From coast to coast; from the river to the sea.