Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said the protesters at a mass rally against the nation-state law who were waving Palestinian flags were seeking to destroy Israel and proved the contentious legislation was necessary.
“We have [here] conclusive evidence of the opposition to the existence of the State of Israel and the necessity of the nation-state law,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, referring to the Arab-led demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday.
“Yesterday we saw PLO flags in the heart of Tel Aviv. We heard the calls: ‘With blood and fire we will redeem Palestine.’ Many of the demonstrators want to abrogate the Law of Return, cancel the national anthem, fold up our flag and cancel Israel as the national state of the Jewish people and turn it – as their spokespersons said – into an Israeli-Palestinian state, and others say: A state of all its citizens.”
He added: “It is for precisely this that we passed the nation-state law. We are proud of our state, our flag and our national anthem. Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. The individual rights of its citizens are anchored very well in the basic laws and other laws. Now it is clearer than ever that the nation-state law is also necessary… to ensure the future of the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people. We passed this law and we will uphold it.”
The prime minister made similar remarks Saturday night on Twitter after images and videos of the flag-waving protesters were shared on social media. “We will continue waving the Israeli flag and singing [the national anthem] Hatikva with great pride,” he posted.
Some 30,000 Israelis packed Rabin Square for the protest march led by the Arab community against the newly passed law that critics say marginalizes the state’s non-Jewish citizens.
The law passed by the Knesset last month for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also defines Arabic as a language bearing a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as Israel’s second official language.
The government has argued the new law merely anchors the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are already rooted in existing constitutional legislation.
But critics, both at home and abroad, say it undermines Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
It has prompted particular outrage from Israel’s Druze minority, whose members say the law’s provisions render them second-class citizens. Last week, at least 50,000 Israelis attended the Druze-led demonstration against the law in Rabin Square.
At Saturday’s rally, dozens of activists waved Palestinian flags in defiance of a request by organizers at the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, who wanted to encourage the Jewish population to attend the march in solidarity.
Protesters carried signs in Hebrew and Arabic demanding “Justice and equality now” and others calling the law “apartheid.”
At times, some participants chanted in support of Palestine and against Israel, including cries of “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine” and “Million of martyrs are marching to Jerusalem.”
In Israel, Palestinian flags are often viewed with deep distrust because they are associated with the Palestinian national movement and its aim to subsume the Jewish state.
On Sunday, Culture Minister Miri Regev said she would take the issue of the Palestinian flags to the attorney general.
“There cannot be a situation where Palestinian flags are being waved in Tel Aviv,” she said. “I will turn to the attorney general [about this].”
“The fact that the left has joined up with the Arabs is absurd,” she added. “I’m sure [late prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin would turn in his grave if he saw what happened in Rabin Square.”
Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy full citizenship rights but have long complained of discrimination in some areas like jobs and housing. They share the ethnicity and culture of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and often identify as Palestinian rather than Israeli, even if they are not per se Palestinian nationalists.
On Sunday, the leader of the Joint (Arab) List, Ayman Odeh, responded to the criticism, saying that only several dozen protesters waved Palestinian flags and the overall spirit of the rally was not nationalistic in nature
“Thirty thousand people gathered in Rabin Square to express their legitimate and just demand for equal civil rights for all,” he told Army Radio, and urged Israeli Jews to accept the Palestinian identity of Arab citizens.
“We are Arabs, and that needs to be internalized,” he said. “We have a culture, a language and a history.”
“I am a member of the Palestinian Arab people, and a citizen of Israel at the same time…. accept me as I am,” he said.
Former MK Mohammad Barakeh, a longtime leader of the left-wing Hadash party who currently heads the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, told the crowd during his speech on Saturday the protest was called to “erase this abomination and remove the stain made by Netanyahu and his government called the nation-state law.”
Barakeh told a Times of Israel reporter at the event the committee had “asked the public not to bring [Palestinian] flags, but I can’t control what people do.”
On stage, Barakeh said it was the “flag of the oppressed Palestinian people, the flag they are trying to eradicate from history via the nation-state law.”