The British-Palestinian who is changing the narrative on Palestine
Weeks ago, Farah Koutteineh posted a comic strip on her Key48 account explaining why the Palestine-Israel conflict is not a religious one. Little did she know, it would change the narrative on Palestine, but it became central to helping others understand the largest flare-up of violence against Palestinians since 2014.
It was a cartoon strip of two women having a relaxed conversation about Palestine over a cup of coffee. What came from one character asking if the conflict is about religion, turned into one of the most iconic social media posts in this current flare-up of violence against Palestinians.
Farah’s post garnered millions of views and was reposted by high-profile celebrities such as the Hadid siblings, Martha Kalifatidis, Indya Moore, Tracee Ellis Ross, and more.
Shortly after it gained mass traction, the post got taken down by Instagram in its continued effort to censor Palestinian voices.
“Currently, we’re trying to present answers to questions that people have, which the Israeli camp have claimed to be complicated – such as the right to return, the two-state solution, and why not to reduce Palestine to a religious conflict. I don’t understand why it was silenced,” she told The New Arab.
Ironically, when Farah first launched Key48, it was in response to censorship of Palestinian voices by the University of Westminster, where she was completing her degree.
She says her university’s Palestinian society was repeatedly censored by events getting cancelled and speakers needing approval before they can join, on some occasions.
The University of Westminster denies restricting students' activism. "At the University of Westminster, we are committed to enabling a supportive, inclusive, and safe environment and upholding the principles and rights of academic freedom and freedom of expression. We have a clear and transparent event booking process which can be found on our website. This is to ensure that all attendees and participants feel supported and protected and to enable us to provide support where needed to allow events to run smoothly," the university told The New Arab.
"Following the events booking process is a requirement for all organisers. Such systems are common to all universities in order to meet their Prevent duty responsibilities. We are pleased that this has meant we have not stopped any event or refused any speakers which have been organised through the events booking process. Events which have not followed this process and are found not to have the necessary support to ensure they run safely may be subject to postponement," it added.
At the end of 2016, Farah and two other students decided to create a symbol for Palestine in a form of a badge that is shaped like a key, in a tangible measure of solidarity with the cause.
“The idea was to create a Palestinian version of the poppy. We wanted to make sure the conversation can be had wherever supporters go, so if they wore our key, people would be more likely to ask what it represents to start a conversation on Palestinian rights,” Farah explained.
"If they wore our key, people would be more likely to ask what it represents to start a conversation on Palestinian rights"
They reached out to Palestinian organisations for funding and by November 2017, they launched in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
They currently have Key48 ambassadors across 40 different countries and it has been worn by high profile figures, including Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the UK’s Labour Party, and Ahed Tamimi, a famous Palestinian teenage activist.
“As our campaign picked up, we decided to expand into social media to guide people on how to advocate for Palestine and present the reality of how it is for Palestinians to live under occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism,” Farah said.
Their page currently has over 64,000 followers and continues to grow as their content becomes viral.
Censoring Palestinian voices
Palestinian activists have complained of being censored by social media outlets. Palestinians inside Palestine have said they have not been able to live stream, and posts explaining the Palestinian narrative have even been taken down.
Key48 only began to experience censorship on Instagram when it gained viral attention. A post they had since March, showcasing revolutionary Palestinian women for International Women’s Day was deleted in May, three hours after Bella Hadid posted it on her story.
Farah described the move by Instagram as “despicable and racist,” especially considering Key48 paid tribute to women like Hind Al-Husseini, who built an orphanage for Palestinian children who lost their parents at the time of the Nakba.
Other women featured were Rasema Odeh, Ahed Tamimi, Rashida Tlaib, and Fatima Bernawi. Instagram said they removed the post for “promoting violence or dangerous organisations.”
“If the post really went against their guidelines, they should have removed it back in March,” she said.
Shortly after, her comic-style infographic explaining why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a religious conflict was deleted.
“This post went viral because it shook the foundations of the narrative that it is Muslims against Jews when it’s clearly about colonialism,” Farah explained.
“This post went viral because it shook the foundations of the narrative that it is Muslims against Jews, when it’s clearly about colonialism”
Activists and celebrities rallied in support of Palestinians after the censorships and decided to repost the screenshots they had and even translate them.
“It was amazing, this was the first time I’ve seen something widespread. We had people translating our post in Mandarin, Polish, Bulgarian and so many other languages. We’re trying to upload them all on our page, but it’s amazing how they tried to silence us and it only emboldened our message.”
She even got messages of solidarity from oppressed people across the world Native Americans and indigenous communities in Brazil, telling her that they relate to the Palestinian plight.
For Farah, not only was it heart-warming to see their support but connecting oppressed people through social media creates space for inter-solidarity movements and a global liberation network.
“No one is free until all of us are free and even when we are being censored, it creates outrage on our behalf because people want to understand why it’s happening to us.”
Palestinians who are living inside the occupation have also reached out to Farah to tell her to continue: “Whether we are in the diaspora or living inside Palestine, we have all felt the effects of the massive narrative shift this time around.”
They too helped her combat censorship by giving her advice from their own experience and putting her in contact with digital rights organisations.
‘They colonised my post!’
Soon after her post went viral, Farah woke up to see that the Israeli army had used her template of creating a comic-style infographic explaining her side of the conflict.
Using Key48’s template, the Israeli army’s official Instagram account posted a comic-style graphic of a civilian asking an Israeli army officer about the situation between Gaza and Israel.
“Since Monday, terrorists in Gaza have been attacking Israel with thousands of rockets,” the officer said in the first slide.
Farah believes the incident emphasises how much money they put into their propaganda. “They responded to us the only way they know how to respond, which is to copy and colonise,” she explained.
"In the Western diaspora, we have freedom of speech and assembly. Our houses won’t be doused in skunk spray and we won’t get shot at the way Palestinians living under occupation have to endure"
On the flip side, the appropriation of her post by the Israeli army shows how grassroots activism is massively shifting the narrative. “It’s only a post, but it has shaped how people relate to Palestine, and even the way the other side is relating to us in response,” she said.
Despite being on this journey for years, Farah urges that the work to raise awareness for Palestinians must go on – if anything, she sees it as a duty.
“In the Western diaspora, we have freedom of speech and assembly. Our houses won’t be doused in skunk spray and we won’t get shot at the way Palestinians living under occupation have to endure,” she stressed.
“This is something we must utilise.”
Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab and a spiritual lifestyle blogger.