Israel’s entire identity – manufactured and artificial as it is – is built on the erasure of Palestine. From the name of the land to the Arab villages that once populated it, all have been razed, occupied and renamed by the Zionist entity which, having no real identity of its own, seeks to demolish all cultural and physical markers of the Palestinians who have lived there for centuries.

In its current genocidal campaign against Gaza, which is itself a continuation of the hundred-year war against Palestine, Israel has intentionally tried to destroy cultural markers and sites with as much determination as it has intentionally tried to destroy the people themselves. The church of Saint Porphyrius, which dates to the 12th century, was deliberately bombed as was the Al-Omari Grand Mosque – the oldest on the Gaza strip – which was built 1400 years ago. Along with these, Israel has also destroyed the ancient Gazan port of Anthedon in the northwest of the strip, which itself dates to 800 BC, along with the archeological site of Al-Balakhiya, among many others.

The erasure isn’t limited to historic sites, but also includes more recent monuments and symbols across occupied Palestine. Take the city of Jenin in the West bank, where a sculpture of a horse made from the wreckage of an ambulance destroyed in an Israeli strike was towed away by triumphant Israeli troops. In Gaza, a memorial to commemorate the martyrs of Mavi Marmara – a relief flotilla for Gaza that was attacked by Israeli commandos in 2010, resulting in the murder of ten Turkish civilians – was also destroyed. In the occupied West Bank, a memorial to former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was also demolished.

But despite Israel’s efforts, Palestine endures because the idea of Palestine endures. Even as Israel carries out an attack on Gaza unprecedented in its scale and destruction, Palestine’s name is chanted by multitudes in every corner of the world; spoken as a symbol of resistance, and as a symbol of how life endures in the midst of eviscerating cruelty. And that’s because symbols are immortal, they cannot be bombed into oblivion or starved to death; they endure. And given what Palestine has had to endure at the hands if Israel, from the Nakba of 1948 to the war on Gaza in 2023, there is no shortage of symbols.

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The Keffiyeh

The first, and the oldest symbol of Palestinian resistance is the keffiyeh itself. The scarf, traditionally worn by Arab men, has now transcended the boundaries of gender, nationality or ethnicity, and has become a symbol of support for the Palestinian cause worldwide. For decades, popular media in the West has linked the garment to terrorism and regressive mindsets, and that perception has now changed.

Today, this once vilified garment is proudly worn by men, women and children across the world in rallies from New York to Jakarta where the cries of freedom for Palestine echo to the heavens. In Washington DC, a protestor even adorned former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statue with a keffiyeh, and one has to admit it rather suited him.

The keffiyeh didn’t come from Palestine. While its actual origin is shrouded in the mists of history, some cultural historians believe that its name derives from the Iraqi city of Kufa many centuries ago and, like most such garments, the original use was purely functional: for farmers working in the fields, it provided protection from the sun and also the cold, depending on the time of year. For others it was simply a useful scarf.

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It became a political symbol during the Arab revolt against British rule in 1936. This was when the British, in line with the Balfour declaration, committed to the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ on Palestinian soil. Taking up arms against this injustice were the fedayeen, the name given to disparate Palestinian fighters who resisted the colonization of their homeland. Again, the use was functional, because the keffiyeh, when wrapped around the face, provided anonymity and prevented identification by the British forces. In one such incident, a fedayeen fighter attacked a troop of British soldiers, killing some and injuring others. One British soldier escaped and told his commander that the attacker was wearing a keffiyeh as a veil and so a search went out for anyone wearing such a garment. At this, the commander of the fedayeen instructed everyone in the target area to take off their fezzes (this area was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and the fez was a popular headgear choice) and don keffiyehs instead, thus preventing British forces from finding the attacker.

The keffiyeh staged a comeback in 1974 when Yasser Arafat wore it while addressing the world at the United Nations, leading to a revival of its popularity. But beyond the political symbolism, the traditional keffiyeh pattern has other meanings as well, symbols that speak to the soul of Palestine. The wavy pattern symbolizes the leaves of the olive trees that Palestinians have planted and lovingly cared for for centuries; trees that are as resilient as those who tend to them. The crisscross pattern is for the nets used by fishermen on the Palestinian coast, and the bold lines stand for the ancient trade routes that have, for millennia, brought prosperity to the region once referred to as ‘the land of milk and honey’.

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The Key of Return

This is perhaps the most tragic reminder of what the Palestinians have lost. When they were expelled from their homes during what is now known as the Nakba in 1948, by Jewish settlers backed by terrorist organisations like Irgun, Haganah and the Stern gang (which later consolidated into the Israeli army), many Palestinians held on to the keys of their stolen houses in the hope that one day they would return to them. They never did, and so the keys were passed down from generation to generation as a reminder of what once was, and what could be again. This is why, when you look at protests by Palestinians you will see posters depicting keys and, in some cases, the actual keys can also be seen. To compound the tragedy, today the residents of Gaza who have been forced to flee Israeli bombing have carried with them the keys of their houses many now reduced to rubble – and like their forebears they too do not know if they will ever return.

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The Watermelon

This particular symbol, one you may have seen on protest placards and as an emoji on social media many times, speaks to the creativity of the Palestinian people. It dates to when Israel seized control of Gaza and the West Bank in the aftermath of the six-day war in 1967, and immediately banned the Palestinian flag. Undeterred, the Palestinians began to hold up watermelon slices, or depictions of watermelon slices because the colours of the fruit - red flesh, black seeds and green rind - are the same colours as that of the Palestinian flag. The Israelis did catch on eventually of course, and in 1980, Palestinian artist Sliman Massoud was told that not only was painting the Palestinian flag forbidden but painting even a flower in the colours of the Palestinian flag was forbidden. His exhibit was then shut down by the occupation authorities. While the ban was lifted in the wake of the Oslo accords of 1993, the watermelon remained a popular symbol and saw a resurgence when, in 2021, Israeli courts ruled that Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shaikh Jarrah were to be evicted to make way for…you guessed it…Jewish settlers. Apart from Israel, the only other place that tried to ban the use of the watermelon image is Germany, which is currently trying to wash the blood of the Jews from its hands with the blood of the Palestinians. All in all, the watermelon is probably the most delicious symbol of Palestinian defiance today.

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The Red Triangle

This is a new one and, as with the watermelon, is widely being used as an emoji on social media and also in protests. The triangle features prominently on videos posted by Hamas’ Qassam brigades where they can be seen targeting invading troops and Israeli military vehicles, and is possibly inspired by or derived from the red triangle on the Palestinian flag. In shaky videos filmed from go pros or similar cameras, Hamas fighters carrying light weaponry are seen stalking Israeli forces through the ruined streets of Gaza and then, when a target is spotted, the video freezes temporarily and a red triangle appears above the soldier or vehicle to make it easier for the viewer to zoom in on a specific part of the video through the dust, rubble and fog of war. On a symbolic level, it forces you to focus – it forces you to see, with your own eyes, the face and nature of resistance. And perhaps for the first time in our memory, the whole world is watching.

Israel's ultimate agenda since the Nakba has been to erase all signs of Palestine and indeed to physically eliminate and expel Palestinians themselves. And with the unconditional aid and approval of Western powers, they are proceeding with this genocidal agenda by massacring thousands in Gaza today. But, as many would-be conquerors have learned to their dismay: you can break and brutalize human bodies, you can massacre entire generations, but resistance will always spring anew because the symbols and signs that power that resistance are, and will always remain, immortal.

Zarrar Khuhro is a journalist who has worked extensively in Pakistan’s print and electronic media.

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