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ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR
Columns
Opinion articles written in the style of their author. These texts are to be based on verified facts and must be respectful towards people, even though their actions may be criticized. All opinion articles written by individuals from outside the staff of EL PAÍS shall feature, along with the author’s name (regardless of their greater or lesser renown), a footer stating their office, academic title, political affiliation (if any) and main occupation, or the occupation related to the topic being assessed

Censorship and watermelons

The fear of offending Israel is restricting freedom of expression, which is why symbols are making a comeback

Israel-Hamas war
A woman wears a T-shirt with a watermelon design during a pro-Palestinian protest in Amman, Jordan.ALAA AL SUKHNI (REUTERS)
Ana Fuentes

A fruit has become more politicized than ever. The watermelon has appeared in marches in support of the Palestinians and in thousands of comments on social media because it has the same colors as the Palestinian flag: red, black, white and green. Some accompany it with other messages; others, use it alone. It’s a subtle wink to get around censorship and finger-pointing.

It may seem striking today, but the watermelon has been playing this role for almost 60 years. When the 1967 Arab-Israeli war ended, Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, and banned Palestinians from carrying national symbols such as their flag in public places, claiming they incited terrorism. It considered national symbols the same as those for Islamist armed groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Following the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Israel lifted the ban and recognized the flag as that of the Palestinian Authority, which was created to administer the Gaza Strip and some parts of the occupied West Bank.

However, the flag has remained a source of constant tension and a pretext for repression against Palestinians. Nearly one year ago, the far-right Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered police to confiscate Palestinian flags in public places. The watermelon became famous again after Zazim, an Israeli-Arab peace activist group, stuck giant stickers of watermelons on a dozen Tel Aviv taxis. The stickers came with a Magritte-style message that read: “This is not a watermelon.” The goal was to protest the confiscation of the flag and several arrests for flag-flying. One of the leaders of the group told the local press that they would always be willing to overcome any absurd restrictions and fight for freedom of expression.

Before October 7, 200 Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank, the highest number in a 10-month period since the U.N. began keeping records in 2005. That’s where things stood when Hamas murdered and kidnapped more than 1,400 Israelis. The Israeli army then launched an attack on Gaza and has since killed more than 21,000 Palestinians. Only then, has the world once again looked at the entrenched conflict. Social media is providing a platform for people to express themselves, although not on equal terms: Facebook and Instagram have eliminated or discriminated against thousands of pro-Palestinian content. Last week, the NGO Human Rights Watch reported that Meta — the technology company that owns these platforms — has censored peaceful, pro-Palestinian messages, videos and comments from 60 countries, mainly in English. Arabic content is more likely to be removed by mistake. However, on TikTok there is more content tagged with “Palestine” than with “Israel,” according to the platform.

On the streets, several governments have recently gone so far as to restrict demonstrations in support of Palestine. In the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak’s executive suggested that brandishing a Palestinian flag should be a crime. In many societies, the fear of offending Israel is restricting freedom of expression, which is why symbols are making a comeback.

@anafuentesf

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