If there is one thing we know for sure, it is the fact that Palestinians deeply understand what it means to be silenced. This lived and shared experience spans across decades and comes in an abundance of different forms. From arbitrary arrests to social media censorship, the Palestinian people have seen it all. Through this suffocation of voice and expression, an unlikely symbol emerged. I’m not talking about the kufiya, which of course is widely recognized as a Palestinian symbol of resistance. I’m talking about slices of watermelon. Fruit that bears the colors of the flag of Palestine: red, white, green and black. So how exactly did something as mundane as a piece of fruit become a statement of resistance and of existence for Palestine?
Military Order 101
This unique story begins with the introduction of Military Order 101 on August 27, 1967, shortly following the Six-Day War at the start of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Enforced by the Israeli military, the intent of this order was to forbid gatherings, processions or demonstrations that were political in nature or could be construed as political. This translates easily to: ensure the Palestinians cannot resist.
The language in the order is incredibly vague and thus is used to punish Palestinians for a variety of actions (or perceived actions). As long as the arresting officer decides the intent behind the action is political, this order can be used.
Examples of actions defined as forbidden by this law include:
- Waving or display of the Palestinian flag without permission from the military commander
- A gathering or procession of 10 or more people
- Printing of any type of document that has political significance
- Singing of a hymn or sounding a slogan identified with a hostile organization or showing sympathy for them
As is quite obvious even with only these four examples found in Military Order 101, this law can easily be applied to the most innocent of situations. PaliRoots co-founder Aminah Musa recently shared a story with me that was passed down to her from her grandmother, who at the time was sewing Palestinian flags. When purchasing the fabric required, she would buy just one color at a time to avoid drawing attention and the ire of the IOF. The most important forbidden action for our story is the second one, in which Palestinians are forbidden to print any type of document with political significance. Due to the ambiguous language in Military Order 101, the occupation even began arresting Palestinian artists for using red, white, green and black in their artwork!
In 1980, during an art exhibition at Gallery 79 in Ramallah, occupation forces stormed the gallery, confiscated paintings and arrested Palestinian artists Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani and Issam Badr. Mansour recalls from that incident, “we were summoned by the occupation authorities...and they read to us orders related to the Israeli prohibitions related to Palestinian paintings and artworks, including the prohibition of drawing the colors of the Palestinian flag, and they assured Issam Badr, who commented on their decisions, that any painting that includes these colors, even if it displays watermelons, will be confiscated because it includes prohibited colors.”
Fathi Ghabin, a well known painter from Gaza, was arrested in 1984 for a painting he created. The painting depicted his nephew lying on his side, succumbing to a gunshot wound he suffered from the barrel of an Occupation soldier’s weapon. The boy’s sweater was green and white, his pants were black and his blood a deep red. An Israeli military official declared, “first it is the colors, you have the colors of the PLO flag...that is considered inciting material because it insinuates the ongoing armed struggle.” Ghabin served 6 months in jail for this artwork.
The Watermelon Emerges
During the First Intifada (1987-1993) it was said to have been a form of nonviolent protest to carry a slice of watermelon through the streets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; a silent form of resistance. A New York Times article in October 1993 reported multiple arrests of young Palestinians for the crime of carrying watermelon slices. This was ultimately unconfirmed, but an Israeli military spokesperson could not deny that such arrests had taken place.
It was also reported in the Australian paper The Age that watermelons were used as a symbol of resistance during the Second Intifada (2000-2005).
A Modern Symbol Of Existence
Since the Second Intifada, the watermelon has taken on a life of its own in regards to Palestine’s fight for liberation. In 2007, Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani presented his piece Watermelon for the Subjective Atlas of Palestine. This inspired countless other artists like Sarah Hatahet, Sami Boukhari, Aya Mobaydeen and Beesan Arafat to create their own interpretations of the symbolic watermelon in their artistic statements of solidarity with Palestine.
As it naturally does, social media has given wind to this symbol’s wings as of late, spreading the story around the world. It is a simple yet beautiful way to show support to Palestine while tapping into the story of the resistance. The watermelon is an icon, perhaps more now than ever before.
Next time you find yourself holding a slice of watermelon, I implore you to take a moment. Close your eyes, and put yourself in the shoes of the Palestinian people. Become a fly on wall and take in the strength and resilience that this symbol stands for. Witness the countless arrests, the confiscation of artwork, the removal of flags and the oppression of the people. Use that moment to reaffirm to yourself: the resistance and existence that the watermelon represents is proof that Palestine will be free.
How did the watermelon become a symbol of resistance for Palestinians?— AJ+ (@ajplus) June 11, 2021
AJ+ spoke with Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour who explains that the idea initially came from an Israeli soldier. pic.twitter.com/gpT8BXkXxH
About the Author: Dylan found the story of Palestine as a young adult, and quickly became passionate about learning and educating others of its history and current events. His exhaustive research has only left him with a hunger for more knowledge and more opportunities to share. A Canadian born and raised, he's been called a Palestinian by heart and couldn't be more proud to be that.