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Netanyahu Says ‘From the River to the Sea,’ a Phrase Zionists Claim is Genocidal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the notion of Palestinian statehood in a news conference on Thursday, claiming it “would endanger the state of Israel.” But he also invoked geographical language that has become a point of bitter contention as Israel’s continued military bombardment of Gaza continues in response to the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, saying that “in the future, the state of Israel has to control the entire area from the river to the sea,” according to an English translation of the speech from Israeli news channel i24News.

According to another translation, Netanyahu said that Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River” — which effectively means the same thing.

Few who have followed the conversation about the deadly conflict in the Middle East these past several months could have missed the provocation in this remark: Israel and Zionists around the world have continually denounced the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” when used by those supporting Palestinian independence, saying it constitutes “eliminationist” or “genocidal” rhetoric aimed at Jewish people. Pro-Palestine demonstrators, meanwhile, say it is a rallying cry for equal rights and autonomy.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, was censured by the U.S. House in November because of her criticism of Israel — and in part for her defense of this particular phrase, which she described as an “aspirational call” for “peaceful coexistence.” The Republican-led resolution for the serious disciplinary action was backed by 22 of her fellow Democrats. Days before, the Anti-Defamation League had labeled the expression “an antisemitic slogan commonly featured in anti-Israel campaigns.”

Israel itself has previously tweeted that “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is used by “those who call for the elimination of Israel,” i.e., the destruction of the Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This interpretation is also favored by critics of student protesters advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza, like Bill Ackman, the hedge fund billionaire instrumental in forcing out Harvard University president Claudine Gay over a perceived failure to deal with antisemitism on campus.

X/Twitter‘s owner, Elon Musk, shortly after facing an unusual rebuke from the White House over his endorsement of an “abhorrent” antisemitic conspiracy theory in November, announced that the slogan would be treated as incitement to “extreme violence” and result in user suspension. (As with his earlier declaration that the word “cisgender” would henceforth be considered bannable hate speech, no actual change has been implemented.)

In this context, Netanyahu’s invocation of “from the river to the sea” while describing a territory completely controlled by Israel, with no Palestinian state, raised more than a few eyebrows. “Irony is dead,” tweeted Mehdi Hasan, the former MSNBC broadcaster whose show was canceled in November, prompting a backlash from fans who believe his criticism of Israel as a Muslim cable news host played a factor in the decision. Jewish activist group If Not Now, which is pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to “Israel’s apartheid system,” tweeted that Netanyahu was describing the state “[r]uling Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza forever, until they’re killed or driven out.” And Majed Bamya, a Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, bluntly asked, “outrage anyone?!!”

So far, of course, the politicians and other public figures eager to police the language of Palestinian liberation have yet to find fault with Netanyahu’s curious choice of words. The broader significance of the prime minister dismissing the possibility of a Palestinian state, however, is expected to add further strain to the deteriorating relationship between Israel’s right-wing government and the Biden administration. Congress, meanwhile, can’t even gain basic oversight on potential war crimes in Gaza: On Tuesday evening, only 11 senators voted for a resolution to require the State Department to report on whether Israel is violating human rights with U.S. weapons and military equipment.

As for whether Israel supporters will follow Netanyhau’s lead in appropriating the contentious slogan for their own purposes, we’ll find out where the debate around it rages most fiercely: online.

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