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Fuming over feted terrorist, Ben Gvir orders cops to tear down any Palestinian flags

Police reportedly unsure whether they have legal basis to enforce order, issued by hardline national security minister in latest reaction to celebrations for freed terror convict

A man holds a Palestinian flag near others holding Israeli flags near Jerusalem's Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
A man holds a Palestinian flag near others holding Israeli flags near Jerusalem's Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ordered police to tear down Palestinian flags from any public place as of Sunday, though officers were reportedly nonplussed by the new policy, which appeared to be an ad hoc response to a freed terror convict waving a Palestinian flag last week.

Ben Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, said in a statement from his office that he had ordered Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to implement the new policy, a symbolic measure liable to increase friction between police and Arab Israelis who identify with the Palestinian national struggle.

“Minister Ben Gvir sent the police commissioner’s office an order stating that all police officers of any rank are authorized in the course of police work to pull down flags of the Palestinian Authority,” the statement read.

It is not illegal to display Palestinian flags, but police have wide leeway to take action to maintain public order. A proposal that would have made it illegal for state-funded bodies to display a Palestinian flag passed an initial Knesset reading in June before sputtering out.

Ben Gvir said his order “relies on the fact that displaying a [Palestinian] flag is a form of supporting terror,” alluding to the flag as the symbol of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The announcement came hours after the right-wing minister summoned Shabtai for a dressing down over the fact that open celebrations were held in the Arab town of ‘Ara to fete the return of a local man who served 40 years in prison on terror charges for killing a soldier in 1980. During the celebration freed convict Karim Younis waved a Palestinian flag.

Ben Gvir had ordered police to prevent public celebrations in ‘Ara, backed by a legal opinion that such celebrations offer support for terrorism.

Arab Israeli Karim Younis is carried by friends and relatives following his release after 40 years in an Israeli prison for kidnapping and murdering an Israeli soldier, on January 5, 2023, in the northern Israeli town of ‘Ara. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“It can’t be that lawbreakers wave terror flags, incite and support terror, and therefore I have ordered that terror-supporting flags be removed from the public space,” Ben Gvir said in the statement Sunday. “Identifying with a terrorist and with harming IDF soldiers is not protected under freedom of speech.”

It’s unclear if police will enforce the order, the latest point of contention between Ben Gvir and Shabtai. Police have turned to government legal counselors for advice on how, if at all, the order can be carried out, Channel 13 news reported, with serious legal challenges expected.

Ben Gvir has sought legislation granting him unprecedented control over police policy, which is normally set by the commissioner.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

The far-right firebrand has spoken multiple times in the past in support of capital punishment for terror offenses. He has been a critic of police enforcement efforts against Jewish nationalists and what he considers a too-soft approach toward non-Jewish suspects.

In May, Israeli police drew international condemnation for heavy-handed tactics during a funeral procession for al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, including ripping Palestinian flags away from mourners. Abu Akleh was killed in Nablus by what investigators have determined was a misfired Israeli round.

Israeli police confront mourners as they carry the coffin of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in Jerusalem, Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

There are no clear rules on when Palestinian flags are permitted to be displayed, and instructions from the attorney general are to remove them only when “there is a concern at the level of a high probability that waving the flag will lead to serious disruption of the public peace,” according to a May report in Haaretz.

In 2021, Ben Gvir’s predecessor Omer Barlev asked the police commissioner to limit the confiscation of flags at public events.

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