Bill to ban waving Palestinian flags on campuses temporarily shelved by ministers

Students violating the ban would face 30-day suspension, while repeat violators would become ineligible to get an Israeli degree for 5 years

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration marking the annual Land Day in the northern Arab-Israeli town of Sakhnin on March 30, 2023 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Illustrative: Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration marking the annual Land Day in the northern Arab-Israeli town of Sakhnin on March 30, 2023 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

A government panel on Sunday shelved for at least a month a right-wing bill that would bar waving Palestinian flags on Israeli campuses, amid widespread condemnation of the legislation from university and rights groups and opposition by the attorney general.

Introduced by far-right Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech, the bill would also institute campus bans on waving flags linked to terror organizations, as well as expressing support for terror groups, terrorism, or armed struggle by enemies of Israel.

Students caught violating the ban would be suspended for 30 days for a first violation, and then for subsequent violations would be blocked for five years from either receiving a degree in Israel or having a foreign degree recognized.

Academic institutions must also expel students who belong to terror organizations or who are convicted of terror offenses. The latter would be blocked from receiving a degree in Israel or having a foreign degree recognized for 10 years.

The bill — which Son Har-Melech said was drafted along with the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization — is the latest in a longstanding fight over freedom of expression on Israeli campuses. Last year, then-opposition party Likud advanced a different bill to block state-supported institutions, including public universities, from flying the Palestinian flag.

But the Ministerial Committee on Legislation declined to decide Sunday if it would provide the bill with government backing, pushing off any such decision by at least a month.

Israelis stage a protest at Tel Aviv University against a far-right bill to ban waving Palestinian flags on Israeli campuses, May 28, 2023. (Credit: Standing Together)

Following the bill’s shelving, Har-Melech tweeted Sunday that the legislation is “critical to the war on terror,” slamming the attorney general’s opposition to portions of the bill. Gali Baharav Miara’s position on the legislation “gives free rein to terror cells to continue inciting against Israel” under the guise of free expression, the MK added.

Before the panel met on Sunday, rights groups took to campuses in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beersheba to protest, with Palestinian flags in hand.

The protests were organized in part by Standing Together, an organization that supports coexistence, which said that the bill is “anti-democratic and dangerous” and “will severely damage freedom of expression and the ability of Palestinian students to freely express their national identity.”

“All of us, Palestinian and Jewish students, must oppose this if we want a free, equal and democratic academic space,” a statement from the movement continued.

In its explanatory notes, the bill states that “academic institutions have become a central platform for incitement in the State of Israel. At Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion and [Jerusalem’s] Hebrew University, students held explicit demonstrations in favor of an intifada [Palestinian armed uprising], and in some cases even explicitly made remarks in support of terrorists from terror organizations.”

MK Limor Son Har Melech attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It also states that some “students were arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorist attacks and some were even convicted, all without an appropriate response from the academic institutions.”

In particular, last May, students at Beersheba’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev held a pro-Palestinian rally with flags and nationalist songs. The demonstration, planned after students were blocked from commemorating Nakba Day, which frames the establishment of the State of Israel as a catastrophe, drew outrage and was decried by right-wing politicians from across political alliances.

At the time, Ben Gurion University stood by the event, citing the importance of diversity of views.

A number of university administrators also denounced the bill, with the Association of University Heads releasing a statement last Thursday that slammed the legislation as draconian and deleterious to freedom of speech.

“The law bill seeks to turn the higher education institutions into branches of the Israel Police and the Shin Bet, forcing them to track hundreds of thousands of students on their premises, and to impose punishments on actions that currently are mostly protected by freedom of speech laws,” it wrote.

Palestinian student supporters of the Hamas terror organization wave the group’s flag during a rally at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2022. (Flash90)

“Inserting political considerations into an academic decision of termination of studies is a decision that will severely harm the higher education institutions and the status of Israeli academia around the world,” the statement continued.

In May, the Knesset advanced a separate bill that would create NIS 10,000 administrative fines for waving terrorist organization flags. The Palestinian flag, as the national flag of the Palestinian Authority, would not be subject to the penalty.

Neither bill would apply to the West Bank, where terrorist organization and Palestinian flags are routinely on display at university events.

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