LIFESTYLE

How watermelon imagery, a symbol of solidarity with Palestinians, spread around the planet

Jan 16, 2024, 9:29 PM | Updated: Jan 18, 2024, 5:52 pm

FILE - People participate in a sit-in demanding a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war at De Longpre ...

FILE - People participate in a sit-in demanding a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war at De Longpre Park in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. 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 fruit has increasingly come to be recognized as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and a global sign of solidarity. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

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 colors 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.

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.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

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 organize 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.

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.”

“Our message to the government is clear,” the organization said in a written statement. “We’ll always find a way to bypass any absurd ban and we won’t stop struggling for freedom of expression and democracy — whether this involves the Pride flag or the Palestinian flag.”

For some, embracing the colors of the flag is about striving for freedom and equality rather than necessarily statehood.

“I’ve never cared for flags or nationalism,” says Mayssoun Sukarieh, an expert in Middle Eastern studies at King’s College London. “But when it comes to Palestine, it’s a flag of a colonized people who never saw independence. And because it has been banned, it becomes more of a symbol of resistance than it is of nationalism.”

WATERMELON EMOJI

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.”

“With the watermelon (emoji), I think this is actually really the first time where I’ve seen it widely used as a stand-in. And that to me marks a notable uptick in censorship of Palestinian content,” says Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Berlin-based York has analyzed Meta’s policies. While “shadow banning,” or the limited visibility of certain posts, can be difficult to discern, advocacy and nonprofit organizations studying digital rights in the Middle East say they have tracked stark biases, especially on the Meta platforms Facebook and Instagram. Meta hasn’t said much directly about this but cites a statement it released in October.

“Censorship is somewhat obvious” on Instagram, York said. In mid-October, people began to notice that if one’s Instagram bio said “Palestinian” in English alongside the Palestinian flag emoji and “Praise be to god” in Arabic, the app translated the text to “Terrorist.” Meta released a public apology.

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.

Jason Rosenberg, a member of both organizations, said, “Our reinvented image shows that our fight for liberation and fight to end the epidemic is intrinsically connected to the Palestinian struggle.”

SEED IMAGERY

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.”

Israel’s air, ground and sea assault in Gaza has killed more than 24,000 people, some 70% of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Throughout, activists around the world have continued to call for peace and a permanent cease-fire. Israel says ending the war now, before Hamas is crushed, would give a victory to the militants who attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7 and killed some 1,200 people and took about 250 hostage.

“We’re seeing Palestinian flags being banned, even the emoji online being flagged — and, you know, the word ‘Palestine’ being censored online,” Escarciga said. “But having this image that transcends language, that transcends culture, that transcends algorithms — can really reach people.”

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Lifestyle

Residents walk through the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (AP P...

Associated Press

The uncertainty that plagues life in crisis-ridden Venezuela is also wreaking havoc on relationships

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Victoria Estevez finally met someone who saw past her shyness. They spent two months learning about their likes and dislikes, texting about their families and friends, and walking around their hometowns on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. On a trip to the capital in December, they held each other for the first time. […]

3 hours ago

Gracie Wiener poses for a photo with some of her tote bags in Washington Square Park in New York, W...

Associated Press

Historic utility AND high fashion. 80-year-old LL Bean staple finds a new audience as a trendy bag

FREEPORT, Maine (AP) — L.L. Bean created it 80 years ago to haul heavy blocks of ice. Now it’s a must-have summer fashion accessory. The simple, sturdy canvas bag called the Boat and Tote is having an extended moment 80 years after its introduction, thanks to a social media trend in which they’re monogrammed with […]

5 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surrounded by U.S. Secret Servic...

Associated Press

Trump’s escape from disaster by mere inches reveals a tiny margin with seismic impact

NEW YORK (AP) — Jarring, chaotic and sudden, the bullet whizzed toward the stage where former President Donald Trump stood behind a podium speaking. In its wake: the potential for a horrifying and tragic chapter in American history. But the Republican presidential candidate had a narrow escape — mere inches, possibly less — in Saturday’s […]

2 days ago

FILE - An Amazon Prime cardboard shipping box label is seen on March 17, 2023, in East Derry, N.H. ...

Associated Press

Amazon Prime Day is a big event for scammers, experts warn

NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon Prime Day is here, and experts are reminding consumers to be wary of scams. Deceptions such as phony emails from people impersonating online retailers like Amazon are nothing new. But phishing attempts increase amid the heavy spending seen during significant sales events, whether it’s Black Friday or Prime Day, according […]

2 days ago

FILE - An Amazon worker delivers packages in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 2020. July sales events have be...

Associated Press

Amazon Prime Day deals are almost here. Should you take advantage of them?

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s summertime, and the bargains seem easy at a time when many consumer prices are high. July sales events have become a seasonal revenue driver for the retail industry since Amazon launched its first Prime Day back in 2015. While consumers may be enticed by the advertised can’t-miss savings on some […]

4 days ago

Carlton Smith, left, and Justin Nimmo pose in from of the console of the Barton Opus 234 theater or...

Associated Press

Reviving Hollywood glamor of the silent movie era, experts piece together a century-old pipe organ

DETROIT (AP) — A massive pipe organ that underscored the drama and comedy of silent movies with live music in Detroit’s ornate Hollywood Theatre nearly a century ago was dismantled into thousands of pieces and stashed away. The Barton Opus, built in 1927, spent four decades stored in a garage, attic and basement in suburban […]

4 days ago

How watermelon imagery, a symbol of solidarity with Palestinians, spread around the planet