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Why is pro-Palestinian activism being suppressed in Europe?

Why is pro-Palestinian activism being suppressed by European governments?
5 min read
19 October, 2023
European governments have recently been cracking down on pro-Palestinian activism, particularly targeting the phrase 'from the river to the sea'.
Tensions between governmental bodies and pro-Palestine protesters are heightening amid the dramatic escalation of violence in Gaza this week [Getty]

While the outbreak of war in Gaza and Israel has seen an outpouring of support for the Palestinian cause, there has been in conjunction an alarming wave of state attempts to criminalise Palestinian activism. 

Whether it was the UK’s Home Secretary suggesting that waving the Palestine flag could be glorifying terrorism, or France’s interior minister condemning Palestine solidarity demonstrations as a civil disorder, there are ongoing moves to stifle activism. 

But one group – the European Legal Support Center (ELC), an independent organisation defending Palestine solidarity movements in Europe and the UK through legal means – has pointed out a recent successful court ruling in The Netherlands in favour of Palestinian activism.  

In August, a Dutch court ruled that the Palestinian rights chant 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free' is not punishable by law and not hateful, following a two-year appeals case triggered by a charge against a pro-Palestinian activist who used the line during a Nakba anniversary rally in June 2021.

The Dutch public prosecutor said that the expression relates to 'the state of Israel and possibly to people with Israeli citizenship, but does not relate to Jews because of their race or religion.'

The defendant’s lawyer in the Dutch court case said at the time that it was vital that Dutch society can "criticise Israel's policies without the risk of criminalisation."

Why is 'From the river to the sea' so widely misunderstood as anti-Semitic? 

For decades, the chant has been misrepresented by pro-Israeli politicians and groups in Europe and the US  as well by Israel, who label it as a hate crime against Jewish people.  

The UK’s right-wing home secretary Suella Braverman was the latest public official to denounce the slogan when she said on Monday that it is recognised as "a demand for the destruction of Israel."

"Attempts to pretend otherwise are disingenuous," she wrote in a post on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter. 

The ELC, which was established in 2019 by European jurists and civil society activists, has noted that the slogan is being increasingly targeted "on the false premise that it incites violence against the Jewish people."

"The strategy behind portraying this slogan as anti-Semitic is to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and silence discussion around and advocacy for the Palestinian cause," the group said. 

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But the chant, which refers to the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, is deeply ingrained in Palestinian identity and culture. It is repeated by exiled Palestinians because it speaks of the right of return, the liberation and decolonisation of Palestine, and freedom for its people. 

"It represents a political manifesto increasingly recognised around the world: justice for all Palestinians in historic Palestine and in exile," the ELC said. 

Global attempts to quash Palestinian activism 

Tens of thousands have rallied in cities around the world in support of Palestinian rights and against Israel’s occupation since Israel launched its aerial bombardment on Gaza in response to Hamas’ attack on 7 October. 

In response, there has been an abrupt shutdown of Palestinian movements by right-wing governments. 

Germany and France – two countries with large Muslim populations – banned such demonstrations last week.  

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protestors in Paris who came out in defiance of the ban last week were met by tear gas and water cannons by the police. 

However, France’s top administrative court, the Conseil d'Etat, is expected to rule this week on whether the government’s move was legal. 

In Berlin last weekend, police shut down a pro-Palestine protest and arrested dozens of individuals. 

Commenting on the flurry of state suppression of Palestinian movements, the ELC said: "We are witnessing extraordinary restrictions being imposed on virtually all expressions of solidarity: Palestinian flags and keffiyeh scarves are being banned and protest rallies are being systematically prohibited."

In the US, universities have become flash points for heated demonstrations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups, while university presidents have sought to distance themselves from making statements on the war.

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The origin of the phrase 

When the UN General Assembly in 1947 recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state; it was vehemently opposed by the country’s Palestinian Arab population. 

The proposed borders gave 57% of historic Palestine to the proposed Jewish state, even though Palestinian Arabs formed a majority there. Palestinians feared subjugation, displacement, and land seizure by the Zionist movements that went on to establish Israel.

Their fears were well founded. Israel went on to seize 77% of Palestine and ethnically cleanse most of its Palestinian inhabitants in the 1948 war. Their descendants remain in refugee camps to this day.

Palestinians still regarded the whole of Palestine as one homeland, and the phrase 'From the river to the sea' alludes to this. 

Following the exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the 1948 Nakba, the phrase gained traction in the 1960s when calls for a democratic secular state in all of historic Palestine were made. 

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In 1974, Fatah leader and Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat, said in his famous 'Gun and the Olive Branch' speech to the UN in 1974 that the "Palestine of tomorrow" would include "all Jews now living in Palestine who choose to live with us there, in peace without discrimination".

Today, many Palestinians and some Israelis call for a binational state where Palestinians and Jews have equal rights. These calls have gained momentum amid Israel's refusal to withdraw from the West Bank or stop settlement activity there, and its continued siege of the Gaza Strip.