Watermelon emojis and algospeak: How UAE social media users are supporting Palestine online

From the windows of taxis in Tel Aviv to Instagram posts, the ubiquitous fruit emoji can now be seen everywhere

by

Ajanta Paul

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A taxi adorned with a watermelon in the colours of the Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv on June 21, 2023. Photo: Zazim
A taxi adorned with a watermelon in the colours of the Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv on June 21, 2023. Photo: Zazim

Published: Wed 15 Nov 2023, 4:47 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Nov 2023, 4:51 PM

When hundreds of sliced watermelon images and emojis started to flood my social media timelines, it piqued my curiosity. The common denominator? All these posts were advocating for the Palestinian cause and vehemently protesting the current Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

But why watermelons? The green rind, white flesh, red pulp, and black seeds of the fruit mirror the distinctive colours of the Palestinian flag. Additionally, watermelons are widely cultivated throughout Palestine, spanning from the West Bank to Gaza.

The symbolism in the context of the Palestinian struggle has a straightforward explanation, yet the historical intricacies surrounding its use add complexity to the narrative.

After the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, when Israel seized control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem, the government imposed restrictions on the public display of the Palestinian flag in the occupied territory.

Israeli law does not outlaw Palestinian flags; however, police and soldiers have the authority to remove them in situations where they deem they are a threat to public order.

In January 2023, Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir instructed police to remove Palestinian flags from public spaces. In a statement, he said that waving the Palestinian flag is an act in support of terrorism.

In June, an Arab-Israeli peace organisation called Zazim began adding images of sliced watermelons on taxis plying Tel Aviv, with the accompanying text reading, “This is not a Palestinian flag”.

Photo: @zazim_org_il
Photo: @zazim_org_il

"We found a creative way to convey our message - share now so that the message is spread as much as possible," Amal Saad, who organised Zazim’s watermelon campaign, posted on the platform X. The response Saad received was overwhelming.

As Israeli airstrikes continue to target Gaza, millions protesting online have adopted the symbol to show solidarity with the thousands displaced and killed in the narrow Strip.

"For decades, we have been prohibited from raising our flag; so the watermelon is considered a message: 'I am the resistance'," explained Duaa Al Asaad, a Palestinian from Haifa, who lives in Abu Dhabi.

She continued, "We often use the fruit so that our social media posts are not deleted, or the page is not taken down because of its stance and solidarity with the Palestinian cause."

Duaa is not alone; Jordanian-Palestinian national Doha Zemaili and Jordanian expat Sondos Almaani say pro-Palestinian posts and content highlighting Gaza plight do not have the same reach as opposed to other random posts.

"Many use the watermelon so that the reels or stories don't go unnoticed or some AI algorithm or technology filter the posts," said Doha Zemaili.

UAE social media influencer Megan Al Marzooqi has been using her widely-popular Facebook and Instagram group 'Real Mums UAE' to raise awareness about the crisis. She noticed how her engagement tanked when she posted about Gaza. "The views on my Stories went from 5,000 on a 'normal posting day' to under 1,000 the next day when I posted about Palestine.

"People messaged me telling me that my page no longer showed up and they had to search for it, or that the captions in my post were blank, and they couldn't share my posts to their stories when they were about Palestine."

There have been several such claims on social media that posts, Reels, and Stories featuring overt Palestinian symbols and Arabic hashtags were subject to restrictions by major US-based platforms.

Meta — the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — acknowledged that the post visibility issues impacting some Palestinian users were due to a “bug” and that some Instagram hashtags were no longer searchable because a portion of the content using it violated Meta rules.

In mid-October, it said that it had taken down or labelled nearly 800,000 pieces of content in Hebrew and Arabic in the three days after Hamas' deadly Oct 7 attack on Israel. TikTok, likewise, said in an update that it had removed more than 775,000 videos and 14,000 livestreams since the attack.

Megan, a British-Emirati mother of five, has since resorted to using algospeak when posting pro-Palestine content. In order to bypass automated content moderation and shadowbanning on social media, users started using 'algospeak' — an evasion tactic of creating new words or symbols to use in place of keywords that might get picked up by AI-powered filters. For example, an algospeak term for Palestinians is 'P*les+in1ans' and for the flag, it is the watermelon. Like the photos below used by Megan.

Photo: Real Mums UAE
Photo: Real Mums UAE
Photo: Real Mums UAE
Photo: Real Mums UAE

The Ripe Market, which backs UAE entrepreneurs and home-grown businesses, has also been using the symbol to express support for Palestine.

Jimena Amezquita, Head of Marketing and Partnerships, said: “We decided to use the watermelon as it's an abstract way of representing Palestine while being a strong symbol for the Palestinian people as well. We've also used (very lightly in the background) an image of the olive leaf to represent strength, resilience and perseverance.

"We're supporting the Palestinian cause by donating all gate entrance fees last weekend to the Emirates Red Crescent, with Ripe matching the amount. We have also continued offering complementary wellness and mindfulness activities to the community, which we believe are essential in these hard times."

Megan intends to utilise her platform to the fullest. "Aside from using my voice to educate and raise awareness, I’ve tried to do things to help local businesses that are doing their part to help (the people of Gaza). Four weeks ago, I created a list of local businesses that are donating all or a percentage of their profits to UAE-licensed charities that are collecting for Palestine. I update it every day to add anything new and remove any who have paused donations.

As of November 15, Israel's relentless aerial bombardment and ground offensive have resulted in 11,320 deaths — mostly civilians, including thousands of children.

"I cannot stay quiet; we cannot let the world forget about Gaza. I feel like it’s my human duty to do what I can with my voice and the platform," said Megan.

Long time UAE resident, APS (who wished to remain anonymous) said, "Only recently did I understand the usage of this symbol and other algospeak that exist for the Palestine cause. I feel so ignorant and guilty at the same time for living in a bubble and for not knowing the history behind it. I love the fruit even more now."

From the windows of taxis in Tel Aviv to Instagram posts, the ubiquitous fruit emoji can now be seen everywhere. And the message is loud and clear.

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