Over the past three months, on banners and T-shirts and balloons and social media posts, one piece of imagery has emerged around the world in protests against the Israel-Hamas war: the watermelon.
The colours of sliced watermelon — with red pulp, green-white rind and black seeds — are the same as those on the Palestinian flag. From New York and Tel Aviv to Dubai and Belgrade, the fruit has become a symbol of solidarity, drawing together activists who don't speak the same language or belong to the same culture but share a common cause.
To avoid repressive censorship, Chinese dissidents once pioneered “algospeak,” or creative shorthands that bypass content moderation, recently seen with Winnie the Pooh memes mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping. People around the world began using algospeak to subvert algorithmic biases on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms.
Also read: The many stories of wars and war heroes
The internet is now teeming with pictorial signs — pixelated images, emoji and other typographical codes — that signal political dissent. The watermelon emoji is the latest example.
Here's how the watermelon went from being a symbol of protest in the West Bank and Gaza to a global sign of solidarity with Palestinians online.
After the 1967 Mideast war, the Israeli government cracked down on displays of the Palestinian flag in Gaza and the West Bank. In Ramallah in 1980, the military shut down a gallery run by three artists because they showed political art and works in the colors of the Palestinian flag — red, green, black and white.
The trio was later summoned by an Israeli officer. According to artist and exhibit organizer Sliman Mansour, an Israeli officer told him, “It is forbidden to organise an exhibition without permission from the military, and secondly, it is forbidden to paint in the colors of the Palestinian flag.” The officer mentioned a watermelon as one example of art that would violate the army's rules, Mansour told The Associated Press last week.
In protest, people began to wave the fruit in public.
“There are stories of young men who defiantly walked the streets with slices of the fruit, risking arrest from Israeli soldiers,” Jerusalem-born author Mahdi Sabbagh wrote. “When I see a watermelon, I think of the unbreakable spirit of our people.”
From the mid-90s, when Israelis and Palestinians reached interim peace deals, until the current nationalist Israeli government took office a year ago, raising the Palestinian flag receded as a major issue. Three decades later, "it became a national symbol” again, Mansour said.
Also read: A masterclass by Hilary Mantel
A year ago, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir banned Palestinian flags in public places. This effort was met with fervent opposition. In response, Zazim, an activist group of Arab and Jewish Israelis, plastered taxis in Tel Aviv with large watermelon stickers that read: “This is not a Palestinian flag.”
Watermelons have long been a staple of food in the region, with some dishes, like a popular salad in southern Gaza, originating with Bedouin Arab tribes.
Increasingly, young activists have adopted the watermelon emoji in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Emoji may confuse algorithms that advocates say tech companies deploy to suppress posts with keywords like “Gaza” and even just “Palestinian.”
Watermelons are not the only symbol to catch on with activists. Other signs of global Palestinian solidarity include keys, spoons, olives, doves, poppies and the keffiyeh scarf. In November, to connect with the peaceful message of Armistice Day, when many Brits traditionally wear red poppy pins, protesters this year passed out white poppy pins, to commemorate victims of all wars. On the holiday, scores of protesters wearing poppy pins marched across London calling for an end to the war in Gaza.
In the United States, Jewish Voice for Peace amplified watermelon imagery in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza last month. The group held signs in New York in the colors of the Palestinian flag and with triangular watermelons, leveraging the triangle symbol of ACT UP, the historic AIDS activist group.
Another reason the watermelon might resonate: It has seeds. There is a saying, often attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos, that is popular among activists: “They wanted to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds."
“You might be able to smash a watermelon. You might be able to destroy a fruit, but the seed is a little harder to crush,” says Shawn Escarciga, an artist who created the coalition's design. “It’s really powerful that life can come out of something so small and something so resilient — and that it can be spread so, so easily.”
The image of a watermelon punctuated by bold, triangular seeds was held up at the groups' protest at Manhattan's Lincoln Center, and has since proliferated online. That often happens — art emerges from protest movements and then enters the mainstream.
“Artists have always been at the forefront of revolution, resistance, politics, in varying degrees,” Escarciga says. “We’re doing this, using this iconic imagery, because AIDS isn’t over — and war is obviously not over.”