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Watermelon symbol goes digital in Palestinians' bid

by The Washington Post | July 11, 2021 at 3:43 a.m.

JERUSALEM -- Raising the red, green, white and black Palestinian flag has been banned at times in Israel and today draws the ire of authorities. So the watermelon -- locally grown and similarly colored -- has for decades served in Palestinian iconography as a subversive stand-in.

In recent weeks, the watermelon has resurged on social media, as part of what some Palestinians say are efforts to preempt or circumvent online censorship in the face of heightened enforcement sparked by the Israel-Hamas conflict in May and the accompanying wave of grassroots Palestinian activism.

The users posting emoji, images and artwork -- Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and the diaspora, along with their supporters -- reflect an outpouring of activism and nebulous solidarity online, outside conventional political and geographic boundaries.

Art "can sometimes be more political than politics itself," said Khaled Hourani, a Palestinian artist in Ramallah, in the West Bank, whose work has featured among watermelon images circulating online.

The watermelon symbolism stretches back to Palestinian organizing tactics before the first intifada, the period before the 1993 Oslo accords created the Palestinian Authority and set in motion a now-defunct peace process. But it has found new resonance.

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Palestinian artists used the watermelon "as a metaphor for the Palestinian flag and to circumvent the ban," said Hourani. Online, the tradition persists: Palestinians, distrustful of social media platforms and fearful of Israeli surveillance online, are trying to avoid the catch nets of what they say are unfavorable algorithms and content moderation methods.

Millions of mostly pro-Palestinian social media posts were taken down by Facebook and Twitter in the latest crisis, in what the company said were tech glitches, raising the ire of Palestinians who have long felt that their speech online was overpenalized. At a high rate, Palestinian-related hashtags and accounts were also blocked or had content removed.

"You have a new Palestinian generation. Seventy percent are under the age of 30 [in the West Bank and Gaza], where social media and digital tools are their main source of inspiration and their main access to the world," said Fadi Quran, a Ramallah campaign director at Avaaz. "People need to use social media to spread the word about what's happening here, so that's led to a broad range of tactics ... to overcome digital suppression."

Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms reject accusations that they have intentionally over-moderated, censored or deprioritized Palestinian or pro-Palestinian content.

But many digital-rights activists reject these explanations and say it is a long-standing trend that's more recently escalated as Palestinians take to social media to organize around a cascade of events that have increasingly united Palestinians around the world.

Mona Shtaya, the advocacy manager at Haifa-based 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, said Israeli authorities and social media companies are trying to "silence Palestinians online ... by preventing us from sharing our narrative and our own stories and Israeli violations."

As a result, Palestinians are finding "creative ways" -- such as omitting punctuation, changing letters in words, or mixing political statements with personal photos -- "to overcome and play with the algorithm to prevent posts from being taken down or censored or flagged," she said.

Quran said that his generation continues to view social media with suspicion.

"One of the biggest lessons from the Arab Spring is that social media is much more a tool of oppressors now than a tool of revolutionaries," he said. "the censorship is at a whole other kind of scale of significance."

Print Headline: Watermelon symbol goes digital in Palestinians' bid

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