What does ‘From the River to the Sea’ actually mean?

Headshot of Remy Varga
Remy Varga
The Nightly
Senator Fatima Payman’s comments have been condemned.
Senator Fatima Payman’s comments have been condemned. Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

Parliament has condemned it, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has branded it “hate speech” and Jewish groups say it is anti-Semitic.

But the slogan “From the river to sea Palestine will be free” is being chanted by thousands of protesters and university students around Australia in support of Palestine amid the ongoing war with Israel.

So what does the phrase really mean and where does it come from?

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According to the Anti-Defamation League, the chant calls for the Palestinian state to extend from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and is used by militant group Hamas.

This would mean dismantling the state of Israel, which most Jewish groups consider anti-Semitic because it undermines the right of Jewish self-determination and implicitly calls for Jews to be removed from what they consider their ancestral homeland.

On Thursday, Parliament voted to condemn the phrase after WA Labor Senator Payman declared it, accusing Israel of genocide.

In response, Muslim groups have denied the slogan is anti-Semitic.

Australian National Imams Council legal affairs adviser Bilal Rauf said the phrase meant justice and equal rights for everyone and drew parallels with speakers opening events by saying a Welcome to Country.

“In the same way we say in Australia these lands were not ceded, they always were and are Aboriginal,” he said.

“Now, that doesn’t mean we want to destroy white people or colonisers or European settlement. It means recognition for Indigenous people, it means giving them justice and equal rights.”

But Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive Peter Wertheim said the chant represented the rhetorical erasure of Israel

“It is the exact opposite of a welcome to country,” he said.

“No matter how others might try to sanitise it, this is not a call for a two-state solution, but for ethnic cleansing, or worse, genocide.

“The unambiguously racist and genocidal intent behind the chant is laid bare in its original Arabic version, ‘min el-mayyeh lil mayyeh, Filisteen Arabiyyeh’, which translates literally as: ‘From water to water, Palestine is Arab’.”

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