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On keffiyehs and watermelons: the meaning of Palestinian symbols

March 25, 2024 at 9:36 am

Pro-Palestinian protesters take part in a Global Day of Action to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza on 17th February 2024 in London, United Kingdom. [Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images]

Those who criticise Palestinian resistance to Israel’s military occupation, whether resistance is armed or otherwise, have little understanding of its psychological ramifications, such as a sense of collective empowerment, honour and hope. However, resistance does not simply mean a rifle or a rocket launcher. They are but two of its manifestations and, if not backed by strong popular support, they hardly have much impact. Indeed, all forms of sustainable resistance have to be rooted in popular culture, which helps it generate new meanings over time.

In the case of the Palestinian struggle, the concept of resistance is multifaceted and embedded strongly in the collective psyche of generations of Palestinians, which allows it to surpass the ideological and political confines of factions and political groups.

Although the symbols of this resistance — the keffiyeh, for example, and the flag, the map and the key — are part of this generation of meanings, they are mere signifiers of ideas, beliefs and values that are truly profound.

And no matter how hard Israel has tried to discredit, ban or counter these symbols, it has failed, and will continue to fail.

In the early 2000s, for example, Israeli fashion designers created what was supposed to be an Israeli keffiyeh. The Israeli version, from a distance, looked similar to the traditional Palestinian scarves, except that they were mostly blue. On closer examination, though, you could see that the Israeli replica of the Palestinian national symbol was usually a clever manipulation of the Star of David. This could easily be classified under the banner of cultural appropriation but, in actual fact, it is far more complex.

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Palestinians did not invent the keffiyeh, or hatta, one of the most common neck or head scarves across the Middle East. What they did is take ownership of the keffiyeh, giving it deeper meanings of dissent, revolution and unity.

The keffiyeh’s prominence was partly compelled by Israel’s own actions and restrictions. After occupying the remainder of historic Palestine, namely East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, during the 1967 Naksa, Israel immediately banned the Palestinian flag. The ban was part of a much larger restrictive campaign aimed at preventing Palestinians from expressing their political aspirations, even if symbolic.

What the Israeli military administration could not prevent was the use of the keffiyeh, which was a staple accessory in every Palestinian home. Subsequently, the keffiyeh quickly became the new symbol of Palestinian nationhood and resistance, at times even replacing the “banned” flag.

The history of the keffiyeh goes back to many years before the Nakba, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine by Zionist militias which started in 1947-48. If we look at all of the uprisings in the modern history of Palestine, from the 1936-39 general strike and rebellion to resistance during the Nakba, to the Fedayeen movement in the early 1950s, all the way up to the present, the keffiyeh has featured prominently as arguably the most important Palestinian symbol.

Yet, the real rise of the keffiyeh as the symbol of global solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians did not become a truly international phenomenon until the First Intifada in 1987. It was then that the world watched in awe as an empowered generation armed only with rocks and stones facing the well-equipped Israeli army.

Two types of symbols

It is worth noting that, when we talk about “symbolism” and Palestinian cultural symbols, and to counter Israeli cultural symbols, we refer to two types: one that is laden with intangible, although quintessential representations — for example, the watermelon — and another with tangible and consequential representations; Al-Aqsa Mosque, for example.

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Al-Aqsa Mosque is a symbol of Palestinian spirituality, history and nationalism, and is also an actual physical structure that is located in an occupied Palestinian city, Al-Quds, Jerusalem. For many years, Israel has perceived the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa — the mosque and its large compound — with alarm, countering the Palestinian claim by alleging that, beneath Al-Aqsa, there lie the ruins of the Jewish Temple, whose rebuilding is critical for Jewish spirituality and purification.

As such, Al-Aqsa cannot be considered as a mere symbol, serving the role of some degree of political representation. On the contrary, it has grown to carry a much more profound meaning in the Palestinian struggle. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the survival of Al-Aqsa is now linked directly to the very survival of the Palestinian people as a nation.

According to renowned Swiss linguist Fernand de Saussure, every sign or symbol is composed of a “signifier”, meaning the form that the sign takes, and the “signified”, the concept that it represents. For example, although a map is commonly defined as the geographic representation of an area or a territory merely showing physical features and certain characteristics of the place, it can take on a different level of “signified” when the territory in question is subject to a military occupation, as Palestine is. The physical representation of Palestine’s borders, therefore, became in time a powerful symbol, reflecting the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people throughout history.

A group of protestors carry flags with watermelon illustrations, symbolizing the Palestinian flag with its colors red, yellow, black and white since they are not allowed to carry the real flags instead, as citizens gather to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reform in Tel Aviv, Israel on August 12, 2023. [Mustafa Alkharouf - Anadolu Agency]

A group of protestors carry flags with watermelon illustrations, symbolizing the Palestinian flag with its colors red, yellow, black and white since they are not allowed to carry the real flags instead, as citizens gather to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform in Tel Aviv, Israel on August 12, 2023. [Mustafa Alkharouf – Anadolu Agency]

The same process was applied to the keys belonging to the refugees who were and remain the victims of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of their land. The only difference is that, while the villages existed, then ceased to exist, the key existed as a physical object, before and after the Nakba. The house and the door are probably long gone, but there is a physical key that still, symbolically, unlocks the past, with the hope that, one day, restoring the house and the door will be possible.

In view of this, the land stretching from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, ceased to be just sand, water, grass and stones, and became the representation of something else entirely.

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It must be remembered that the slogan “From the River to the Sea” neither references actual topography nor politics. It is based on the understanding that a disruptive historical event has wrought a great deal of injustice, pain and hurt to historic Palestine and its people. Confronting this injustice cannot be segmented, and it must take place through a wholesome process that would allow the land and, more importantly, the native inhabitants of that land, to restore their dignity, rights and freedom.

Watermelons and red triangles

Some symbols, although employed even before the beginning of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, have become far more popular since 7 October. The watermelon, for example, has been used time and again throughout Palestine’s modern history, specifically when Israel banned the ownership or display of the Palestinian flag.

The fruit itself, aside from being a symbol of the richness of the land of Palestine, features the same colours as the flag: black, red, white and green.

Another, related, symbol is the red triangle. A small red triangle has appeared as a functional tool in videos produced by Al-Qassam Brigades, merely to point at a specific Israeli military target before it was struck by a Yassin 105 or an RPJ shell, or any similar incident. It has now acquired a new meaning, regardless of whether or not it was intended by those who produced the Qassam videos.

The red triangle, as a symbol, was connected, by some, to the Palestinian flag, particularly to the red triangle on its left edge situated over the white and between the black and green. In truth, the origins of the small, red triangle do not matter. Like other Palestinian symbols, it, too, has generative power to accumulate new meanings over time.

Culture and counterculture

As it did with the “Israeli keffiyeh”, Israel has tried to counter Palestinian culture. It did so mostly by devising laws to prohibit Palestinians from communicating or embracing their cultural symbols.

Another tactic has been to claim Palestinian symbols as its own. This is quite common in clothing, food and music. When Israel hosted the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant, in 2021, for example, contestants were taken to the Arab Bedouin city of Rahat. Being very obviously unaware that Bedouin culture, with its embroidered clothes, food, music and numerous cultural manifestations, is a uniquely Palestinian Arab culture, the contestants took to social media to express their excitement about being part of “a day in the life of a Bedouin”, with the hashtag #visit_israel.

Such episodes may not only highlight Israel’s deceptions, but also expose to a large extent its feeling of cultural inferiority. A quick examination of Israeli symbols, whether it is the flag with the star of David, the Lion of Judah or national war songs, such as “Harbu Darbu”, seem to be extracted largely from Biblical references, and religious heroics that existed since before the existence of Israel itself.

Moreover, while Palestinian symbols reflect the desire of Palestinians to return to the land of their ancestors, and to reclaim the legitimate rights and justice which they have long been denied, Israeli symbols seem merely to make claims which are at once ancient, religious and unverifiable. If this reflects anything, it tells us that, despite nearly a century of Zionist colonialism, and 75 years of official existence as a state, Israel has failed to connect to the land of Palestine and the cultures of the Middle East, let alone carve for itself a place in the yet to be written history of the region. This is a history will surely be written by the native inhabitants of that land, the Palestinian people.

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