On Instagram, infographics on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza are punctuated with the watermelon emoji. In the captions of TikTok videos calling for a ceasefire, the emoji replaces words like “Palestine” and “Gaza.” Users of X (formerly Twitter) add the watermelon to their accounts to express their support for Palestinian independence.
The watermelon has long been a symbol of protest for Palestinians and, as social media users, platforms suspected of censoring content on Gaza, the corresponding emoji is used instead of the Palestinian flag. Like the flag, the emoji is also red, green and black.
Israel responded to the October 7 Hamas attack by unprecedented strength against the Palestinian territory, devastating it with retaliatory airstrikes and a blockade of water, food, medical supplies and electricity. THE death toll exceeded 10,000 last month, Palestinian health authorities report.
Posts about the crisis are dominating social media platforms, with many creators choosing to use the watermelon emoji instead of certain hashtags that users fear will be reported or removed. TikTok, for example, denies moderating or removing content due to “political sensitivities,” and posts with controversial tags like #freepalestine or #fromtherivertothesea continue to go viral. However, the label because the watermelon emoji has over a billion views. Although the emoji may be universally used to represent Palestinian resistance to occupation, its meaning is not as widely understood – particularly for users who are not as familiar with the coded language of internet culture. A Redditor asking about emoji in r/OutOfTheLoopfor example, said he doesn’t use TikTok and doesn’t understand what the emoji means.
Online coded euphemisms known as “algolanguage” are used to evade content filters. The existence of “shadowbanning” – or limiting the visibility of certain content – is debatable, but the use of these linguistic workarounds is increasingly common on social media, particularly when discussing topics sensitive or controversial. Phrases popularized on TikTok, such as calling death “unliving” or using the corn emoji to refer to porn and sex work, have spread across Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
The symbol gained renewed attention on TikTok earlier this week, after a filter inviting users to trace patterns with a watermelon went viral. Its creator, an augmented reality effects artist known as Jourdan Louise, pledged all profits from monetizing the filter to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza. Through the Effect Creator Rewards program, AR creators are eligible for revenue sharing once their filters are used in at least 200,000 videos.
In the “FILTER FOR GOOD” launch video, Jourdan Louise asked his followers to use the filter and interact with videos featuring the filter. In the two days since the filter was released, it has been used in more than 620,000 videos.
“I believe an effective way to make an impact is to use what you know, and if you want to involve others, look at their known behaviors,” Jourdan Louise said in a statement. follow-up video released Thursday. “I knew I could use my skills as a filter creator, knowing that people were going to use these filters, to create one that had the potential to make money that could lead to direct help.”
Watermelon imagery represented Palestinian culture and resistance long before Algospeak. Like the olive tree, which has has also become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, watermelon is used in a variety of Palestinian dishes. Palestinian cuisine is rich in recipes for watermelon dishes, according to Enjoy your foodincluding a popular Gazan dish (called fatet ajer, laseema or qursa, depending on how it is served) that uses unripe watermelons cooked with eggplant, tomatoes and peppers.
There is a widely held belief that the symbolism of the watermelon stems from the outright banning of the Palestinian flag. It is more complicated than that. In 1967, Israeli authorities issued a military order criminalizing Palestinian gatherings that “may be interpreted as political.” The command parameters are vague; Amnesty International reports that the order effectively banned all demonstrations, including peaceful demonstrations. The display of flags and the publication of publications “having political significance” were also prohibited under this order, without permission from the Israeli military.
Palestinians began using national colors instead of the flag to circumvent the ban. The Israeli military responded by targeting artists who incorporated red, green and black imagery into their works. Vera Tamari, ceramist told the Guardian in 2002 this application was often “the artistic judgment of the officer in charge”.
It is unclear whether watermelon was specifically used in political art at this time. The myth appears to originate from an artist’s account of an incident in 1980, when the Israeli military closed an exhibition it deemed political because the artwork bore the colors of the Palestinian flag. As reported by the National in 2021, Issam Badr, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, reportedly asked an officer, “What if I just wanted to paint a watermelon?” and was told it would still be confiscated. Sliman Mansour, who also featured in the exhibit, told The National that it was the officer who first mentioned the watermelon, telling Badr: “Even if you paint a watermelon, it will be confiscated.”
Mansour said he did not remember the watermelon being used specifically as a political motif.
After Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinians famous by carrying the flag in all occupied territories. The New York Times reported that young men were once arrested for transporting watermelon slices to Gaza in a 1993 article, but retracted this detail because they could not verify any cases.
The watermelon motif as a political statement became commonplace after the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Inspired by a retelling of Mansour’s watermelon anecdote, artist Khaled Hourani created a series of screen prints titled “The History of the Watermelon” which was published in a 2007 art book on Palestinian culture. He published a single print titled “The Colors of the Palestinian Flag” in 2013, which inspired other Palestinian artists to incorporate watermelon images into their work.
Images of watermelons are particularly prevalent this year, as Israeli authorities impose bans on the Palestinian flag. In January, Israel’s security minister said he had ordered police to remove publicly displayed Palestinian flags, equating the flag with “identification with terrorism” in social media posts. As of May, the Israeli Parliament had 11 bills that, if passed, would ban the Palestinian flag in various contexts, including university campuses. Watermelon designs gained traction following the legislative crackdown and, like the keffiyeh, now represent solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.
And amid global calls for a ceasefire following Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, other state governments are targeting the Palestinian flag. Singapore outlaw public display of war-related symbols without a permit this week, including flags. Suella Braverman, UK Home Secretary said that waving Palestinian flags can constitute a “criminal offense” if used to “glorify acts of terrorism.” Last month, Republican Rep. Max Miller introduces a measure to ban the display of foreign flags in the Capitol building, in response to the Palestinian flag that Rep. Rashida Tlaib flies outside her office.
“Algospeak” often permeates real-world conversations, which take place outside the domain of authority of social platforms. In this case, however, the popularity of the watermelon emoji is the result of decades of real-world censorship that has spilled over into online spaces. The emoji represents not only Palestinian resistance to occupation, but also resistance to digital censorship of Palestinian voices. Whether workarounds can actually escape content filters is debatable: tagging posts as “P@lestine” instead of “Palestine”, for example, may or may not be effective for in-game engagement . But as watermelon motifs become synonymous with Palestinian protest, the use of the emoji isn’t exactly an insider secret. Like the red, green, and black illustrations that defined decades of Palestinian protests, the watermelon emoji is a political statement.