Palestinian woman in occupied West Bank, razor wires and IDF soldiers in background

A Palestinian Muslim woman prepares to cross an Israeli checkpoint in Qalandia, in the occupied West Bank, on March 22, 2024, as they head to Jerusalem to attend the second Friday Noon prayer of Islam's holy fasting month of Ramadan at the Al Aqsa mosque compound.

(Photo by Zain Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images)

From the River to the Sea, Not a Single Palestinian is Free

Israel has put in place a complex system of laws, policies, and regulations that fundamentally curtail the rights and freedoms of nearly every Palestinian and Arab in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and even among its own citizens.

Although the slogan, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” has become one of the most controversial protest chants of the day , and numerous students, activists, and political figures, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, have been penalized and/or censured for merely uttering the slogan, university leaderships and America’s political establishment have yet to seriously engage the policies that have made this slogan a rallying call for a new protest generation. Meanwhile, in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel would retain full security control over the entire area west of Jordan did not as much illicit a single response from America’s political establishment.

Ultimately, no matter how we parse the protest slogan, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” or which interpretation we choose, one reality remains: Between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, not a single Palestinian is free. From Israel, to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), to the Gaza Strip, Israel has put in place a complex system of laws, policies, and regulations that fundamentally curtail the rights and freedoms of nearly every Palestinian and Arab (approximately 7.4 million people) in this territory.

Even among its own citizens, Israel has established different tiers of citizenship, only according full citizenship to its Jewish population. Currently, 67 laws discriminate against the Palestinian and Arab citizens of Israel (Adalah), including laws that authorize Jewish-only screening committees to select land and home purchase applicants based on their “social suitability,” effectively denying applicants on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity. In 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed the Jewish-Nation State Law which reserves the right of national self-determination to its Jewish citizens only, and advocates for the development of Jewish settlement as a national value. Effectively, the law denies the collective rights of 2.1 million Palestinian and Arab Israelis- 21% of its population. The underfunding of Palestinian towns in Israel and employment discrimination against Palestinians and Arabs is commonplace.

Of the 46 Bedouin villages in Israel, home to a population of 200,000 to 250,000 (some of which identify as Bedouin and not necessarily Palestinian), only 11 are legally recognized by the state. “Unrecognized” villages are not included in state planning or government maps, receive almost no state services such as water, sewage electricity, or health and educational services, and cannot obtain building permits to accommodate natural population growth, and are under constant threat of state demolition orders. These communities are regularly at risk of being forcibly removed from their ancestral homes.

June 2024 will mark the 57-year anniversary of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and each year since 1967 has more or less marked a retrenchment of rights for Palestinians living under Israel’s military rule. Collective punishment measures, such as arbitrary and administrative detention (arrest without charge or trial), criminalization of peaceful protest and freedom of expression, curfews, use of tear gas, house demolitions, deportations, and routine disproportionate use of force are everyday features of Israel’s military occupation.

Although in the post-1993 Oslo era, the Palestinian Authority attained limited self-rule in the oPt, Israel has remained in control of airspace, borders, security, movement of people and goods, and registry of the population (source: 40% of terrHuman Rights Watch). Moreover, the legalization of nationalist symbols, such as the Palestinian flag and its colors, and more open political affiliation with the PLO was accompanied by a new crippling system of movement restrictions throughout the territory. In 1993, Israel put in place the first permanent military checkpoint separating Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and imposed a general closure with checkpoints over the Gaza Strip. As of early 2023, there were approximately 645 such movement obstacles in the West Bank, which included 77 full-time staffed checkpoints, 139 occasionally staffed checkpoints, 304 roadblocks, and 73 earth walls (source: UNOCHA). These movement restrictions severely prevent or restrict access to services, main roads, urban centers, and agricultural areas, and have in short devastated the Palestinian economy.

More than 750,000 Jewish Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank. These settlement zones constitute approximately 40% of the territory to which Palestinians have no or minimal access (source: B’Tselem). Israeli Jewish settlers have preferential treatment in every aspect of life from access to natural resources, economic privileges, freedom of movement, to guaranteed military protection and although the settlers are subject to Israel’s civil laws, Palestinians are subject to Israel’s military laws.

After Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980, approximately 372,000 Jerusalem Palestinians became non-citizen permanent residents of Israel. Along with permanent residency status, Israel granted them access to state health insurance and state services, and the right to vote in municipal elections, and unlike Palestinians in the rest of the oPt, they can travel freely throughout the territory. As Israel’s non-citizen permanent residents, however, the Palestinians of Jerusalem are not allowed to vote in national Israeli elections (and more recently Israel decided that they cannot vote in Palestinian national elections as well). The municipality routinely under serves the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, resulting in insufficient educational facilities and services and subpar infrastructure, and denies building permits to these communities. The movement restrictions have cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, severing critical organic economic ties, again devastating the economy of Arab East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Palestinians are required to regularly prove that their “center of life,” or primary residency, is in Jerusalem. Failure to confirm continuous residency leads to the revocation of residency status. Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency and forcibly displaced more than 14,000 Jerusalem Palestinians (source: B’Tselem).

Israel closed off the tiny enclave that is the Gaza Strip and placed it under complete siege beginning in 2007. Since then, Israel severely restricts the movement of goods and prevents Gaza’s residents from traveling to the West Bank or through Israel, denying most of the population critical medical treatment, and educational and professional opportunities that could only be obtained outside of the Strip. The closure policy has suffocated Gaza’s economy, leading to unemployment rates of approximately 46 percent in 2023, one of the highest in the world, and making 80 percent of the population reliant on humanitarian assistance. The 141 squared mile enclave is best described as an open-air prison, and as I pen this article, Gaza’s captive population is being subjected to Israel’s genocidal war.

Regardless of how we choose to interpret the slogan, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” this is the reality on the ground in terms of freedom for Palestinians, and this article does not even address the daily violence to which Palestinians are subjected. Ultimately if there is any hope for a just resolution to this conflict, two questions will need to be addressed by the the political establishment in the United States: Can Israel’s allies continue denying basic human rights to Palestinians—rights that should be inherent to all human beings? And should Israel remain above international law and the laws of nations that underpin a rules-based order?

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