On Instagram, infographics about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza are punctuated with the watermelon emoji. In captions of TikTok videos calling for a ceasefire, the emoji replaces words like “Palestine” and “Gaza.” X (formerly Twitter) users add the watermelon to their handles to express support for Palestinian independence.
The watermelon has long been a symbol of protest for Palestinians, and as social media users suspect platforms of censoring content about Gaza, the corresponding emoji is being used in place of the Palestinian flag. Like the flag, the emoji is also red, green and black.
Israel has retaliated against Hamas’ October 7 attack with unprecedented force against the Palestinian territory, devastating it with retaliatory airstrikes and a blockade of water, food, medical supplies and electricity. The death toll has surpassed 10,000 in the past month, Palestinian health authorities report.
Posts about the crisis dominate social media platforms, with many creators opting to use the watermelon emoji instead of certain hashtags that users believe will be flagged or suppressed. TikTok, for example, denies moderating or removing content based on “political sensitivities,” and posts that contain divisive tags like #freepalestine or #fromtherivertothesea continue to go viral. Still, the tag for the watermelon emoji has over one billion views. While the emoji may be universally used to represent Palestinian resistance to occupation, its meaning isn’t as widely understood — especially for users who aren’t as familiar with internet culture’s coded language. A Redditor asking about the emoji in r/OutOfTheLoop, for example, said they don’t use TikTok, and couldn’t figure out what the emoji means.
Online, coded euphemisms known as “algospeak” are used to evade content filters. Whether “shadowbanning” — or limiting the visibility of certain content — exists is debatable, but the use of these linguistic workarounds is becoming increasingly common on social media, especially when discussing sensitive or divisive topics. Phrases popularized on TikTok, like referring to death as “unaliving” or using the corn emoji to refer to porn and sex work, have spread to Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
The symbol gained renewed attention on TikTok earlier this week, after a filter that prompts users to trace patterns with a watermelon went viral. Its creator, an augmented reality effects artist who goes by Jourdan Louise, pledged all proceeds from monetizing the filter to providing 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 video launching “FILTER FOR GOOD,” Jourdan Louise asked followers to use the filter and engage with videos featuring the filter. In the two days since she released the filter, it has been used in over 620,000 videos.
“I believe that an effective way to make an impact is by utilizing what you know, and if you want to involve other people, lean into their known behaviors,” Jourdan Louise said in a follow-up video posted Thursday. “I knew I could utilize my skills as a filter creator, with the knowledge that people are going to be using these filters, to create one that has the potential to earn money that can result in direct aid.”
Watermelon imagery has represented Palestinian culture and resistance long before algospeak. Like the olive tree, which has also become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, watermelon is used in a variety of Palestinian dishes. Palestinian cuisine is rich with recipes for watermelon-based dishes, according to Bon Appetit, including a popular Gazan dish (called fatet ajer, laseema or qursa, depending on how it’s served) that uses unripe baby watermelon stewed with eggplants, tomatoes and peppers.
There’s a widespread belief that the watermelon’s symbolism stems from an outright ban on the Palestinian flag. It’s more complicated than that. In 1967, Israeli authorities issued a military order criminalizing Palestinian gatherings that “may be construed as political.” The parameters of the order are vague; Amnesty International reports that the order effectively banned all protests, including peaceful ones. The display of flags and publication of literature “having a political significance” was also prohibited under the order, without a permit from the Israeli military.
Palestinians began using national colors in place of the flag to circumvent the ban. Israeli military responded by targeting artists who incorporated red, green and black imagery into their work. Ceramicist Vera Tamari told the Guardian in 2002 that enforcement was often “up to the artistic judgment of the particular officer in charge.”
It’s unclear if watermelon specifically was widely used in political artwork during that era. The myth appears to stem from an artist’s retelling of an incident in 1980, when the Israeli army shut down an exhibition that they deemed political because the artwork bore the Palestinian flag’s colors. As reported by the National in 2021, Issam Badr, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, allegedly asked an officer, “What if I just want to paint a watermelon?” and was told that it would still be confiscated. Sliman Mansour, who was also featured in the exhibition, told the National that it was the officer who mentioned the watermelon first, telling Badr “Even if you paint a watermelon, it will be confiscated.”
Mansour said that he didn’t recall the use of watermelon specifically as a political motif.
After Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinians celebrated by carrying the flag throughout the occupied territories. The New York Times reported that young men were once arrested for carrying sliced watermelon in Gaza in a 1993 article, but retracted the detail since they couldn’t verify any instance of it.
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 silkscreen series called “The Story of the Watermelon,” which was published in a 2007 art book about Palestinian culture. He released an isolated print titled “The Colours of the Palestinian Flag” in 2013, which inspired other Palestinian artists to incorporate watermelon imagery into their work.
Watermelon imagery is especially prevalent this year, as Israeli officials enforce bans on the Palestinian flag. In January, Israel’s security minister said that he ordered police to take down publicly displayed Palestinian flags, equating the flag with “identification with terrorism” in social media posts. By May, there were 11 bills in Israel’s legislature that, if passed, would ban the Palestinian flag in various settings, including on university campuses. Watermelon motifs gained traction in wake of the legislative crackdowns, and like the keffiyeh, now represent solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.
And amid worldwide calls for a ceasefire in wake of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, other state governments are targeting on the Palestinian flag. Singapore outlawed the public display of symbols related to the war without a permit this week, including flags. The United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that waving Palestinian flags may be a “criminal offense” if used to “glorify acts of terrorism.” Last month, Republican Rep. Max Miller introduced a measure to ban foreign flags from being displayed in the Capitol building, in response to the Palestinian flag that Rep. Rashida Tlaib displays outside of her office.
“Algospeak” often permeates real-world conversations, which take place outside of social platforms’ realm of authority. In this case, however, the popularity of the watermelon emoji is the result of decades of real-world censorship bleeding into online spaces. The emoji represents not only Palestinian resistance to occupation, but also resistance to digital censorship of Palestinian voices. Whether workarounds can actual evade content filters is debatable — tagging posts as “P@lestine” instead of “Palestine,” for example, may or may not be effective for gaming engagement. But as watermelon motifs become synonymous with Palestinian protest, using the emoji isn’t exactly an insider secret. Like the red, green and black artwork that has defined decades of Palestinian protests, the watermelon emoji is a political statement.