Why the watermelon has become a Palestinian symbol of ‘defiance’

Key Points
  • At pro-Palestinian rallies in Australia and around the world, protesters have held signs and flags with watermelons.
  • The fruit shares the colours of the Palestinian flag, but experts say it symbolises a lot more.
  • Melbourne artist Aseel Tayah told SBS signs and art bearing watermelons were a “symbol of surviving and resistance”.
Watermelons have become a symbol of support for the Palestinian cause, whether posted on social media or part of larger pieces of art.
The fruit, which is red, black and green when sliced open, shares the and has cropped up more and more on social media amid the latest escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel.

But the history of the watermelon as a symbol for the area and its people extends beyond 7 October this year.

How a flag ban influenced Palestinian symbols

Israel’s government banned the Palestinian flag after the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The ban on the flag was lifted in 1993 after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords.
“A flag symbolises that you are a distinct group of people, that you are a nation,” Martin Kear, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sydney, told SBS News.

“That is something that the Israelis worked hard to prevent, even from 1948 onwards, that there was any sense of some group of people that would be known as Palestinians.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators holding an inflatable watermelon at a protest in London on 11 November. Source: Getty / Mark Kerrison/In Pictures

In 1969, Israel’s prime minister Golda Meir added to this when she told the Sunday Times “there was no such thing as Palestinians”.

Kear said: “Any expression of Palestinian nationalism, such as the waving or display of the Palestinian flag, would be banned and would be seen as contrary to that narrative that there was no such thing as Palestinians or Palestine.”
He said since then, supporters of a Palestinian state have used symbols such as the keffiyeh – – to show their solidarity.

Why are we seeing watermelons?

Watermelons are grown in the Palestinian territories, feature prominently in Palestinian cuisine and Kear said it was hard to demonise a fruit.
“It’s interesting, these different expressions of Palestinian defiance or support,” he said.
“You can demonise the Palestinian flag. You can demonise the keffiyeh. It’s pretty difficult to demonise the watermelon, and you can still get your message out.”
Watermelons resurged in January when Israel’s national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered the police commander to authorise officers to remove Palestinian flags flying in public spaces.
Although it is not illegal to fly the Palestinian flag, Israeli laws prohibit the public display of a flag of an enemy country or group hostile to Israel’s existence.
Following this, Zazim, an Israeli “campaign community” of “citizens, Arabs and Jews” aimed at “combatting the occupation” launched a campaign against the proposals with a picture of a watermelon captioned, “This is not a Palestinian flag”.
Palestine is not universally recognised as an independent state, but for the past 11 years has been accepted as a non-member observer in the United Nations, which considers its territory to be occupied by Israel.
A UN commission of inquiry found in 2022 the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory was unlawful. Then Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid described the report as biased and false.
A Hamas-led attack on Israel took place on 7 October in which more than 1,200 people were killed, including an estimated 30 children, and over 240 hostages taken, according to the Israeli government. It was the latest flashpoint in decades-longIsraeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since then, more than 15,000 people have been killed in Gaza, including nearly 6,000 children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

The significance of the watermelon seeds

Palestinian artist and activist Aseel Tayah was among those attending a protest against the war in Melbourne that featured a large watermelon flag.
She said the seeds have symbolism as they represent the children and the future of the occupied territory.
“The seeds mean the children, the seeds mean the future, those that we plant and wait until they grow,” Tayah said.

“And become something powerful to get the land back. Our land was taken from our grandparents and the grandchildren are the ones who are going to bring [it back] and fight for the rights of Palestinians.”

A woman with a green headscarf. Behind her people hold up "Free Palestine" posters.

Melbourne-based artist Aseel Tayah advocates for human rights through her artwork. Source: SBS News

She said art was a powerful way to communicate with those who don’t attend protests. She hopes they will ask for the meaning behind the watermelon.

“It’s just kind of a symbol of love and freedom, a symbol of surviving and resistance, as symbol of we have not forgotten and we are here to keep telling the stories,” she said.

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