Why the watermelon is a symbol for the Palestinian cause


For people following the Israel-Gaza war, the watermelon isn’t just a fruit.

In recent weeks, protesters have been carrying watermelons through the streets, handing out chunks of the fruit to demonstrators, or painting pictures of watermelons on their faces. On social media, watermelon emojis are appearing in usernames and under posts about the conflict in Gaza.

But what does the watermelon mean in this context, and why has it become such a prominent symbol for pro-Palestinian demonstrators?

The fruit has, in fact, served in Palestinian iconography for decades, often being used as a stand-in for the Palestinian flag, because, when cut open, the fruit displays the flag’s colors of red, white, black and green. It also is a popular fruit grown locally by Palestinians.

There’s a second, practical reason that the watermelon is used: Displays of the Palestinian flag frequently have been banned or restricted.

“In a sense, the watermelon has been claimed by the Palestinians as being Palestinian. It’s a reiteration, a way of saying they do have fruits in the land,” Dina Matar, a professor of political communication and Arab media, said in an interview.

The watermelon “is seen as a symbol of resistance and persistence,” Matar, who teaches at SOAS University of London said, adding that during protests against the Israeli occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank had carried the fruit “as a symbol of what it means to be Palestinian.”

Khaled Hourani, a Palestinian artist based in Ramallah in the West Bank, told The Washington Post in 2021 that art “can sometimes be more political than politics itself.” Some of Hourani’s work is inspired by the watermelon and has been shared widely in recent years, appearing at protests and on social media amid renewed conflict between Israel and Gaza.

The red, green, white and black flag has faced controversy for decades — making innocuous symbols, such as the watermelon, particularly appealing to activists.

Israel has banned the flag in certain situations in the past, and there are efforts by some Israeli politicians to formally do so again. In practice today, the flag is effectively prohibited, because it can be confiscated, and the flying of it can be penalized under Israeli public safety ordinances.

In January, Israel’s national security minister told police to remove the flag from public spaces.

A few months later, a campaign group began sticking posters of watermelons onto taxis in protest of the arresting of people who wave Palestinian flags in public. “This is not a Palestinian flag,” the posters displaying watermelons read.

The watermelon emoji also serves a particular purpose for social media users as supporters of the Palestinian cause turn to code words, symbols and special spellings, arguing that these are necessary to avoid their posts being suppressed by tech companies. In 2021, millions of mostly pro-Palestinian social media posts were incorrectly taken down by Facebook and Twitter, now X. The companies blamed the errors on glitches in artificial intelligence software.

In the aftermath of Hamas’s attack in Israel on Oct. 7, human rights groups say there has been a clampdown on freedom of expression in Israel, particularly targeting the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is of Palestinian heritage. Yarmok Zoabi, the owner of a hummus restaurant in Nazareth, spent a night in jail in October over a WhatsApp status picture that showed a fist with a Palestinian flag but was released without charge.

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In Europe, the Palestinian flag also has been ensnared in fierce debate. In Berlin, schools have been given permission to ban maps of Israel in the colors of the Palestinian flag, while in the United Kingdom last month, the home secretary at the time suggested that displaying the flag at demonstrations may be a criminal offense, although London’s Metropolitan Police clarified that “flying the Palestinian flag, does not, alone, constitute a criminal offense.”

Matar, the SOAS professor, argued that the flag ultimately is a symbol of Palestinian identity: “Raising the flag for any nation is symbolic. It means members of this nation feel they belong to a particular nation. This is why the Palestinian flag is so important, because Palestinians do not have a state, but they do have a nation. … The flag is an important symbol to assert that Palestinians exist.”

Kate Brady, Loveday Morris, Anthony Faiola, Emily Rauhala, Karla Adam and Beatriz Ríos contributed to this report

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