Normally, a celebrity’s daughter wearing a sweatshirt with a fruit on its front wouldn’t cause a controversy. But when that fruit is a watermelon, it just might.
Since the war in Gaza began on October 7 2023, expressions of Palestinian solidarity have increasingly included the image of a watermelon. On jumpers, on flyers, on placards, and all over social media, the symbol is ubiquitous to the movement. Alongside the keffiyeh, lost keys, and the map of pre-British Mandate Palestine, the watermelon has now become a core symbol of Palestinian political expression.
The fruit itself may have a 5000-year history, but its Palestinian connotations date back more recently, to 1980, and an art exhibition in the West Bank.
Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour opened his gallery in Ramallah in 1979, and named it after the year it was founded. A year later, Israeli officers entered Gallery 79, where Mansour, alongside artists Nabil Anani and Issam Badr, had opened an exhibition. Public expressions of the Palestinian flag in the West Bank and Gaza had been made a criminal offence in 1967, by Israeli officials hoping to quell uprisings and in 1980, the law was updated to include any artwork deemed to include red, white, black and green in a political manner. Mansour’s artwork was deemed political under this new law.
Mansour recalls being told that even painting a flower in red, white, black and green would be considered a criminal offence. “Even if you paint a watermelon, it will be confiscated,” Mansour was told.
A Pro Palestinian activist holds a placard with images watermelon slices, during a demonstration at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on November 24, 2023 (Photo by DAVIDE LONGARI / AFP)
The watermelon as a symbol wasn’t picked up again until 2007, when Khaled Hourani painted a slice of watermelon for the Subjective Atlas of Palestine project. He told the Washington Post that the watermelon was used “as a metaphor for the Palestinian flag and to circumvent the ban,” and his work across the Middle East carried the fruit outside of Israel and Palestine.
By this point – and since the Olso Accords of 1993 – displaying the Palestinian flag was no longer illegal. So when Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of National Security, attempted to ban public displays of the Palestinian flag once more, the watermelon gained a new lease of life.
Last June, the Israeli activist group Zazim took on this symbol of protest. The campaigning community bought advertisements on shared taxis in Tel Aviv, which displayed a watermelon alongside the text “This is not a Palestinian flag”. And since October 7, watermelons have been found on anti-Israel protest placards at marches across the world.
But before 1980, the watermelon was already a political symbol – albeit with different connotations. In Jim Crow-era America, the fruit was used as a racist stereotype.
After the Civil War, former slaves used watermelons as a cash crop, and a way to gain economic independence. The watermelon became a symbol of liberation and self-reliance, but was quickly weaponized by white southerners to reinforce racist stereotypes.
This stereotype still holds weight, especially in politics. During the 2008 Obama campaign, the President’s political opponents circulated images of him eating watermelons. In 2002, Boris Johnson was criticised for writing about “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in the Telegraph.
So when Pro-Palestine protesters gathered outside pro-Israel member of congress US Representative Hakeem Jeffries’ offices in November, with watermelon placards and posters, the fruit found itself subject to two different interpretations.
“The watermelon has long been deployed as a dehumanizing racist trope by white supremacists in America. In connection with the planned rally targeting our district office, the use of racially inflammatory imagery should come as no surprise given the role NYC-DSA and other gentrifiers have played in aggressively attacking black elected officials,” Andy Eicher, Jeffries’ communications director, told The New York Post.
Protesters hold a large flag in the shape of a watermelon at Flinders Street Station on November 23, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
The watermelon isn’t the only symbol spreading across social media. The upside-down red triangle – used as a sign of solidarity with Palestine – is also common.
The triangle first appeared in Hamas propaganda videos last year. It floats up and down above targets – like tanks, or IDF soldiers – and is connected to the red triangle on the Palestinian flag.
The use of the red triangle has been fiercely criticised. Originating from al-Qassam videos – the military wing of Hamas – it is sometimes interpreted as a show of support for the terror group. Parallels have also been drawn to Nazi concentration camp badges. The upside-down red triangle was used to indicate a political prisoner, and was sewn onto jackets and trousers of prisoners.
The red triangle isn’t just a shape, and the watermelon isn’t just a fruit. First appearing in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, then a symbol of war in Ancient Greece, the watermelon has now also become an emblem of Ukrainian resistance in the Kherson region, home to the largest crop of the fruit in the country.
Chances are, when you see a red triangle, it isn’t a reference to the Holocaust – or even to al-Qassam. When someone puts a watermelon in their bio, they’re probably thinking of Mansour and not Jim Crow, Ukraine, or a summer greeting gift (unless you’re in Japan).