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Why Palestinians are uniting around watermelon emoji

Palestinian farmers share watermelon during harvest season in the northern Gaza Strip, near the border with Israel, on June 18. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
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Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Israel bans the Palestinian flag. It has banned the flag in certain situations in the past, but today the flag can be confiscated and the flying of it penalized under Israeli public safety ordinances.

JERUSALEM — Raising the red, green, white and black Palestinian flag has historically 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 and content moderation, in the face of heightened enforcement sparked by the Israel-Hamas conflict in May and the attendant wave of grass-roots 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 based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, whose work has featured among watermelon images circulating online.

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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.

Palestinian artists used the watermelon “as a metaphor for the Palestinian flag and to circumvent the ban,” Hourani said. 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 incorrectly taken down by Facebook and Twitter amid 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-based 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.”

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Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms reject accusations that they have intentionally over-moderated, censored or deprioritized Palestinian or pro-Palestinian content. The companies forbid posts that incite or glorify violence, among other regulations.

“We know there have been several issues that have impacted people’s ability to share on our apps,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said in an email. “While we have fixed them, they should never have happened in the first place and we’re sorry to anyone who felt they couldn’t bring attention to important events, or who felt this was a deliberate suppression of their voice.”

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 in Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the diaspora.

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Starting in spring, the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah proliferated, in part spurred by Muna and Mohammed Al-Kurd, 23-year-old Palestinian twins whose home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem is on a list of houses slated to be seized by Jewish settlers. At the same time, tensions grew around Israeli restrictions on access to Jerusalem’s sensitive sites such as the al-Aqsa Mosque — another long-standing flash point and site of confrontations, images of which spread as calls to action online.

Tensions came to a head in mid-May in an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, an extremist group in control of the Gaza Strip, in which more than 250 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 residents of Israel were killed.

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In the weeks since the tentative cease-fire, Palestinian social media has been ablaze with videos and infographics about the latest points of tension — Palestinian properties slated by Israel for demolition in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan; an illegal Israeli settlement on land claimed by the Palestinian village of Beita in the West Bank; day-long strikes and “buy Palestinian” campaigns.

Part of what distinguishes this moment is that the discourse is not dominated by the formal political leadership, seen as disconnected from disaffected, youth-led dissent..

Instead, anger is growing, in the streets and on social media, against the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank. In late June, anti-PA activist Nizar Banat died soon after being taken into custody. His family says PA security forces bashed his head and killed him. Banat’s death kicked off days of protests against the PA, which in chants people have criticized as complicit with Israel’s occupation.

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It has become “charismatic and well-meaning activists and political influencers who are setting the tones of the public debate,” Quran said. “That is terrifying the political elite and the leaders of the different political parties across Palestine. Suddenly it’s not the person who controls the media or weapons in the streets who can alone set the public narrative,” but “anyone who can get online and is brave enough to speak up.”

Mona Shtaya, the local 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.

When writing shahid, Arabic for martyr, for example, users in Arabic are inserting “h” in place of the corresponding Arabic letter to try to evade artificial intelligence looking for posts with the word. In another trend, users in English have taken to spelling Palestine as “P@lestine.”

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.”