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Why is Israel so afraid of the Palestinian flag?

Proposed legislation to prohibit Palestinian flags at state-funded institutions is part of Israel's quest to deepen its control over the Arab population
A Palestinian flag hanging from a civilian drone flies over Jerusalem during the Israeli 'flags march' to mark "Jerusalem Day" on 29 May, 2022 (AFP)
A Palestinian flag hanging from a civilian drone flies over Jerusalem during the Israeli 'flag march' to mark 'Jerusalem Day' on 29 May 2022 (AFP)

In a 63-16 vote, the Israeli Knesset this week gave initial approval to a bill that would prohibit Palestinian flags from being flown at state-funded institutions. Proposed by the Likud Party and backed by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the bill is a clear demonstration of the state’s weakness in the face of Palestinian solidarity, showing that Israel - more than seven decades since its establishment on the ruins of historic Palestine - is in a state of panic.

The vote indicated once again that when the ruling coalition is unable to pass a bill, they resort to the Zionist ultra-rightwing parliamentary opposition. The remarkable issue here is not the fragility of the ruling coalition, but rather the Zionist national consensus and the dominance of the far-right, especially the religious settler movement, over Israeli political life.

The flag battle is not about the flag per se, but about the legitimate existence of Palestinians in their homeland

For Arab students to raise the Palestinian flag during demonstrations on Israeli campuses is nothing new. It has long been used as a national symbol in popular movements, and it was raised once again on 29 May 2022 in a spontaneous reaction to the Jerusalem "flag march", which saw tens of thousands of Jews storm the Old City.

During the event, marchers hoisting the Israeli flag were protected by Israeli forces who occupied the city. The real challenge was to hoist the Palestinian flag so that it could fly above the sea of blue-and-white flags.

Israel attaches special importance to the issue of raising the Palestinian flag in Jerusalem, portraying it as a violation of Israeli sovereignty, even though it is an occupying power. It resorts to the Oslo Accords, and in particular to the Paris Protocol of 1994, to confirm that the Palestinian Authority cannot interfere in internal Israeli affairs. Israel thus depicts Jerusalem as an Israeli affair, and raising the Palestinian flag as interference.

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Campaign of incitement

Last month, to mark the 74th anniversary of the Nakba, Palestinian students organised demonstrations on university campuses. At Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, demonstrators waved Palestinian flags at a university-sanctioned event, sparking a Zionist counter-protest and a complaint from the city’s mayor.

Rightwing activists also hijacked a Nakba Day demonstration by Arab students at Tel Aviv University, leading to a violent confrontation. While both protests and counter-protests by various groups fall within the acceptable framework of academic freedoms, the matter was not confined to this framework, escalating into a campaign of incitement by the Israeli media and political establishment.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in Jerusalem on 29 May 2022 (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in Jerusalem on 29 May 2022 (AFP)

The most outrageous example of this came on 24 May, when Knesset member Israel Katz tweeted: “I warned the Arab students waving Palestinian flags at universities yesterday: Remember ’48. Remember our War of Independence and your Nakba … Enough of the internal terrorism of Israeli Arabs. Enough violence against Jews in the cities involved. If you do not calm down, we will teach you a lesson that will not be forgotten.”

This campaign of incitement is distinguished by a close interdependence between the Israeli media, politicians, members of the public and local militias who aim to intimidate Palestinians, while police turn a blind eye. While this type of interdependence is not new, it has reached unprecedented levels. Bennett’s statement in March urging Israelis to carry guns was a case in point.

Suppressing the Palestinian cause

The sharp increase in the number of Israeli Jews applying for gun licences is extremely concerning in the context of this atmosphere of escalating incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel, alongside the delegitimisation of their political role.

Israel is working hard to drop the Palestinian issue from the national agenda, while also stifling its presence on the international agenda through normalisation deals that expand Israel’s regional influence and establish security cooperation schemes with neighbouring Arab states.

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This is all part of an integrated Israeli strategy, wherein the issue of Palestinian flag receives much scrutiny, as it is a fundamental symbol of the Palestinian cause. That is why we are seeing a push to ban the Palestinian flag, and why Israeli police went so far as to attack the pallbearers carrying the coffin of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last month.

The proposed anti-flag legislation is part of Israel’s quest to deepen its occupation and weaken the role of ‘48 Palestinians, suppressing any links they have with the Palestinian cause. The bill that passed its first reading this week would outlaw “the flying of the flags of an enemy state or the Palestinian Authority” at all state-funded institutions, not just universities.

This would strengthen Israel’s control across the country and push institutions to self-censor in order to preserve their government funding - even though, amid structural discrimination and racism, Palestinian cultural organisations in Israel receive only a fraction of available funding anyway.

At the end of the day, the flag battle is not about the flag per se, but about the legitimate existence of Palestinians in their homeland - and their right to use their political voice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ameer Makhoul is a leading Palestinian activist and writer in the 48 Palestinians community. He is the former director of Ittijah, a Palestinian NGO in Israel. He was detained by Israel for ten years.
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