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Bill to ban Palestinian flag at state-funded institutions clears initial reading

Bennett’s Yamina, coalition’s fellow right-wing New Hope party back opposition measure; vote sees stormy confrontations, with Arab lawmakers told to ‘go to Gaza or Jordan’

Israeli and pro-Palestinian students stage protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Israeli and pro-Palestinian students stage protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

A controversial bill outlawing the display of enemy flags — including the Palestinian flag — from being flown at state-funded institutions passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday.

The Knesset approved the bill, submitted by MK Eli Cohen of the opposition Likud party, with 63 votes for and 16 against, with lawmakers from the coalition’s right-wing New Hope and Yamina parties — including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett –voting alongside opposition MKs.

The coalition’s Islamist Ra’am party voted against the bill, while some members of Yesh Atid and Labor were absent.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation decided to grant coalition lawmakers freedom to vote as they choose on Sunday. Generally, coalition MKs are expected to maintain discipline in votes.

During the stormy session, Cohen engaged in shouting matches with members of the mostly Arab Joint List party, telling them to “go to Gaza or Jordan,” in response to their opposition to the bill.

Speaking directly to Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi, Cohen said: “If you lived in Lebanon, you would live in fear.”

Fellow Joint List MK Sami Abou Shehadeh was eventually ejected from the session for repeatedly interrupting.

Joint List MK Sami Abou Shehadeh is ejected from the Knesset during a stormy vote to ban the flying of Palestinian flags at state-funded institutions in Jerusalem on June 1, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The bill would outlaw “the flying of the flags of an enemy state or the Palestinian Authority,” in any state-funded institution. It must still pass a further three readings to become law.

“The state of Israel, as a democracy, allows its citizens to protest against issues where they disagree with the authorities. However, this bill draws a red line between legitimate protest and protests during which flags are flown of those who do not recognize the state of Israel or pose a threat to its existence at state-funded bodies,” the bill read.

“Flying such flags will be considered an illegal gathering that will be dealt with like a riot that can be dispersed,” the bill said.

Apart from the Palestinian flag, it did not specify other banned flags.

The Palestinians recognized Israel’s existence as part of the Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces coordinate with Israeli forces.

In bringing the bill, however, Cohen said the Palestinians want to “eliminate the Jewish state.”

Although Palestinian flags have sometimes been prohibited or confiscated by police, they are not illegal. The legislative push, which began ahead of Sunday’s nationalist Jerusalem Day Flag March, follows criticism of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev after Palestinian flags were displayed during a recent rally at the school in Beersheba.

“The march with PLO flags on Naqba Day at the university represents the aspirations of those that want to eliminate the Jewish state,” Cohen claimed, adding that the education system in the Palestinian Authority “continues to incite against Jews and Israel.”

“Imagine to yourself that in America, they would raise the flag of al-Qaeda, imagine that they would fly IRA flags in a British hospital … it is inconceivable,” Cohen said, referring to the Irish Republican Army.

Responding to the criticism, the university has noted that the events showed that students from all segments of Israeli society at the campus were able to “hold a variety of opinions and views.”

Universities will not be the only institutions affected by the bill, which would target any state-funded institution, such as cultural institutions, that chooses to display the flag.

The government has in the past targeted institutions that receive state funding for what it perceives to be disloyalty to the state.

In 2018, a bill spearheaded by then-culture minister Miri Regev would have allowed the culture minister to pull funding from state-funded institutions that feature events that reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or are seen to be supporting terrorist groups and enemies of the country. The bill was put on hold as the government at the time could not muster the votes to pass it.

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