Palestinian flag emerges as flashpoint as tensions simmer across Israel

As MKs advance bill to ban waving the flag at state-funded institutions, activists declare ‘it is our right to raise our Palestinian flag’ as a minority group

A man waves a Palestinian flag as Israelis mark Jerusalem Day outside the capital's Old City on May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
A man waves a Palestinian flag as Israelis mark Jerusalem Day outside the capital's Old City on May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

It’s not a bomb or a gun or a rocket. The latest threat identified by Israel is the Palestinian flag.

Recent weeks have seen a furor by nationalists over the waving of the red, white, green and black flag by Palestinians across Israel.

Yet the fracas over the flag tells a broader story about how much hopes for peace with the Palestinians have diminished and about the stature of the 20 percent of Israelis who identify as Arab or Palestinian.

Arab citizens of Israel see the campaign against the flag as another affront to their national identity and their rights as a minority in the majority Jewish state.

“The Palestinian flag reminds Israelis that there is another nation here and some people don’t want to see another nation here,” said Jafar Farah, who heads Mossawa, an advocacy group promoting greater rights for Arab citizens of Israel who identify as Palestinian.

In recent weeks, Israeli authorities have gone out of their way to challenge the hoisting of the Palestinian flag. Police at a funeral in East Jerusalem last month for the well-known Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh snatched Palestinian flags from mourners, reportedly following an order from a district police chief to make sure the Palestinian colors don’t fly at the politically charged event.

A Palestinian flag is removed from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, June 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Two Israeli universities were slammed by some for allowing Palestinian flags to be waved at campus events. Israel Katz, a senior opposition lawmaker with Likud, urged Palestinian flag-waving Israeli students to remember the war leading to Israel’s establishment in 1948, saying Jews “know how to protect themselves and the concept of the Jewish state.”

A group promoting coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis raised the Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli one on a high-rise building outside Tel Aviv, only to have authorities remove the Palestinian flag hours later.

Those events culminated in a push by opposition legislators to ban the waving of the Palestinian flag at institutions that receive state funding, which would include universities and hospitals, among others. The bill passed 63-16 in its first reading on Wednesday, although several parties in the governing coalition were absent and the coalition may seek to block the bill from moving forward.

“In the State of Israel there is room for one flag: the Israeli flag, this flag,” Likud MK Eli Cohen, the legislator who sponsored the bill, said at the Knesset, as he pointed to an Israeli flag hung behind him. “This is the only flag there will be here,” he said to applause from some legislators.

According to Adalah, a legal rights group for Arab Israelis, waving the flag is not a crime under Israeli law. A police ordinance grants officers the right to confiscate a flag if “it results in disruption of public order or breach of peace.”

“It is our right to raise our Palestinian flag,” said Alin Nasra, an activist and student at Tel Aviv University. “This is something that distinguishes us as a minority inside Israel.”

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

Yitzhak Reiter, president of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel, said the uproar against the flag is part of a feeling by nationalists and some mainstream Israelis that they are “losing the state” to Palestinian nationalism from within Israel’s borders.

He cited previous laws that bar municipalities or institutions from marking Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning and the Jewish state law that tried to strengthen Israel’s character as a Jewish state but which Arab citizens saw as a further downgrade of their status and a blow to their national identity. Israel’s national symbols — a biblical candelabra, the star of David on its flag — do not include Palestinian or Arab emblems and Israel’s anthem speaks of the yearning of the Jewish soul.

The flag, Reiter said, “symbolizes the enemy, but waving the flag, for those who oppose it, is harmful to Israeli sovereignty.”

Israel once considered the Palestinian flag that of a terror group, no different from the Palestinian Hamas or the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. But after Israel and the Palestinians signed a series of interim peace agreements known as the Oslo Accords, the flag was recognized as that of the Palestinian Authority.

With peace talks a distant memory, the battle over the flag shows how far from reality Palestinian statehood is, with the nationalist narrative in Israel increasingly going mainstream.

Ronni Shaked, of Jerusalem’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, said he remembers a time when politicians wore lapel pins that bore both the Israeli and Palestinian flags and that even hawkish former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the current head of the opposition and Israel’s longest-serving leader, had a Palestinian flag hanging behind him during events with the Palestinian leadership when relations between the sides were less frosty.

“If we are afraid from the Palestinian flag,” said Shaked, “it means that we are afraid to make any kind of peace with the Palestinians.”

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