Israel Tells Court Waving PLO ‘Terror Organization’ Flag Still a Crime

Activists say police confiscation of Palestinian flags is on the rise since Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem

Police officers holding a confiscated Palestinian flag at a protest in May 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Waving a PLO flag is still against the law, the state told a court Monday, in response to a lawsuit filed by a peace activist against the police for seizing a Palestinian flag he was carrying during a demonstration.

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The suit was filed by Amir Bitan, a left-wing activist in Jerusalem, who attends regular demonstrations against Jewish settlements in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. These demonstrations are generally quiet and uneventful, but sometimes, toward the end, police arrive to confiscate the Palestinian flags carried by demonstrators.

“The plaintiff was familiar with the law and knew that there is no legal ban on raising the Palestinian flag,” says the suit, which was filed by attorney Eitay Mack. “In response to the questions of the plaintiff and other protesters as to why they wanted to confiscate the flag, the police gave no reason at all, so the plaintiff refused to give them the flag,” 

Police officers confiscate a Palestinian flag from protesters in Sheikh Jarrah.

Bitan is demanding 5,000 shekels ($1,350) in compensation for the policemen’s behavior and emotional distress. A defense statement submitted by the government Sunday said the state plans to argue that “raising the flag of a terror organization in the State of Israel is itself a crime.”

The state’s defense statement, submitted by Attorney Michal Yirmi of the Jerusalem Prosecutor's Office, is based on a legal opinion by the attorney general issued in 2014, in which he stated that the PLO is still considered a terror organization despite the diplomatic agreements signed with it and the diplomatic relations Israel has with the Palestinian Authority, which has adopted the flag. The attorney general stated that although flying the flag is an offense, a person shouldn’t be prosecuted for it.

But the opinion also said that this does not confer “absolute immunity” and that policemen are still authorized to confiscate the flag if “there arises a real concern that raising the flag constitutes the violation of identifying with or sympathizing with a terror organization, or if there is a high level of probability that raising the flag will lead to a serious threat to public safety.” The state argues that the Palestinian flag could have incited the Muslim worshipers returning from prayer a short time afterward.

According to Bitan’s complaint, “The policemen were not there to examine whether the raising of the Palestinian flag caused a breach of public order; as stated, the vigil proceeded as usual and passed without any disturbance or unusual events until the police car arrived.In the absence of new legislation prohibiting the raising of the Palestinian flag and in light of the above ruling, it’s clear that it’s [irrelevant] that the Palestinian flag irritates the policemen personally or doesn’t suit their personal political views. The plaintiff does not have to obey the lawless whims of police acting out of irrelevant and political considerations.”

According to left-wing and Palestinian activists, during the past year, and especially since the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in May, police have become much stricter about the display of Palestinian flags.

“We have been standing at the demonstration every week for 10 years; until five months ago there was no problem holding a flag,” said Salah Diab, a Sheikh Jarrah resident. “Then suddenly they started attacking us every time we raised a flag.”

According to Diab, a leader of the protests against the entry of settlers into the East Jerusalem neighborhood, the new policy coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “Since then the Palestinian flag has been making them crazy,” he said. “Everywhere, in Sheikh Jarrah, Bab al-Amud (Damascus Gate) and Isawiyah.”