The phrase “from the river to the sea,” which media studies and production professor Marc Lamont Hill used in his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, comes from the disputed area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
The context and pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian stances surrounding the phrase is diverse, said Sean Yom and Ian Lustick, political science professors who both specialize in Middle Eastern studies and politics.
“It’s primarily been about land and people’s conflicting rights to it,” said Yom, who teaches at Temple. “It is about identity. It’s about religion. It’s about history. It’s about memory, but it is a fight about land and whose claim to territory is morally, legally and politically superior to one another.”
Jewish people first occupied the region in the early 1900s as a part of the Zionist movement, which supports Jews finding a permanent homeland.
“Jews have lived without a country of their own for a long time — for hundreds of years — and without the protection of a state,” Lustick said. “As estranged people, they were always subjected to persecutions.”
This persecution led Jewish people to form an official “home,” as Lustick described, and the area surrounding Jerusalem had the religious pull to get masses to move.
The conflict began because the Jews who came to Israel took an “iron wall” stance and expected already-settled Palestinians to compromise, said Lustick, who teaches the “Arab Israeli Conflict in International Politics” course at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1947, the United Nations mandated a “partition,” or a creation of two separate states for the Jewish and Arab people living in the region. Palestinians believed this favored Israel, prompting a war between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Israel then gained some areas originally granted to Palestinians by the U.N. in 1947 through an armistice in 1949.
After a series of wars, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and 1995. The accords promised that Israelis and Palestinians would find peace and gave Palestine independent control of parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — the main location of conflict today.
Guerilla war between the two sides continues there, and radical groups emerged on both sides. Hamas, a Palestinian nationalist group, has used violence to claim a Palestinian state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and Hamas has had control for more than a decade.
Additionally, there were two Palestinian uprisings against Israel in the late 1980s and early 2000s. In some cases, Palestinians protested peacefully, and in others, violence broke out on both sides. According to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in Occupied Territories, more Palestinians died in these conflicts than Israelis.
There are two prominently debated solutions to the conflict: one-state and two-state, Yom said.
The most often used definition of a “one-state solution” would give Israel complete control over the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The “two-state solution” would fulfill the U.N. partition and allow Palestine and Israel to declare two separate, independently controlled states. But some Palestinian liberation movements, like the Temple chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, said they support returning the region to the Palestinians.
Lustick said Hill’s “free Palestine from the river to the sea” statement could mean that he advocates for equality and democracy for Palestinians in a “one-state solution,” in which both Palestinians and Israelis can live peacefully.
In the end, it is impossible to determine Hill’s exact meaning because it has been historically used by different groups and can be interpreted in several ways, Yom said. Palestinians have used this to advocate for a separate state and Jewish people have used the phrase to justify their control over the disputed land.
“When two different communities have a fundamental and internationally recognized claim to exist, any language which can be remotely interpreted as questioning either right to exist can be seen as inflammatory and a frontal assault on a people,” he said.
“Most people are not focusing on creating two states,” Lustick said. “They’re instead focusing on making whatever arrangement is made between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River democratic for everybody.”
For this reason, Yom and Lustick said, “Chofshi b’ar-tzeinu,” Hebrew for “free in our own land” is included in Israel’s national anthem, while “horra min al-nahr ila al-ba’har,” Arabic for “free from the river to the sea” has become a popular slogan for pro-Palestinian activists.
“You have a situation where both speakers can claim to be right and morally justified in their statement,” Yom said. “The only problem is that neither speaker can be fully aware of the other’s meaning of the phrase.”