Israeli Minister Calls on Police to Stop Confiscating Palestinian Flags at Protests

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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A protest calling for the release of a Palestinian prisoner, last week
A protest calling for the release of a Palestinian prisoner, last weekCredit: רמי שלוש
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev recently told the police commissioner and other high-ranking officers in the force that the Palestinian flag, which is also the flag of the PLO, may only be confiscated during demonstrations under certain, exceptional circumstances.

Jerusalem police officers regularly confiscate Palestinian flags from protesters on the grounds that they could lead to “a serious disturbance of the peace.” On several occasions, the police have also arrested protesters who waved a Palestinian flag during protests in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, even though they posed no threat.

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In June, Joint List lawmaker Ofer Cassif asked Bar-Lev to stop the police from seizing the flags. Bar-Lev told him the police were following a directive from the attorney general and a deputy attorney general, according to which Palestinian flags should be removed “when there is a high likelihood that flag-waving will lead to a serious disturbance of the peace.” However, in recent years the Jerusalem police had been removing the flags at every opportunity, including in the western part of the city, such as flags that were hung in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and during the Balfour Street protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In other cities, the police do not attach great importance to the flag-waving, which has occurred at various protests without police intervention, such as in Haifa during the protests that erupted during the Gaza fighting in May.

A protest against Israel's attacks in Gaza, in MayCredit: Ofer Vaknin

After Cassif’s inquiry, Bar-Lev spoke with the police commissioner and told him that flags should only be removed in exceptional circumstances, as Deputy Attorney General Raz Nazri determined in 2014.

“Regarding incidents that took place during protests in East Jerusalem – I have explained to the relevant police officials the importance of conducting such police actions ... only in cases where there is a high likelihood that the flag-waving will lead to a serious disturbance of the peace,” Bar-Lev wrote.

The Counter-Terrorism Law allows the police to confiscate Palestinian flags only if the flag-waving constitutes “identification with a terrorist organization,” which is punishable by up to three years in prison. The police are also permitted to remove any flag “in circumstances that could cause a disturbance of the peace.” The police say they are following the attorney general’s directive, although no related indictments have been filed.

An appeal is currently being heard in the case of Yisrael Meir Kraus, a resident of the Haredi Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim, who waved a Palestinian flag during a July 2020 protest. Kraus was arrested for disturbing the peace, his flag was confiscated, and he went to court to get it back.

A protest against the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, in MayCredit: Moti Milrod

At the hearing, the police said Kraus waved the flag “to intentionally create a provocation and stir things up” and that while the prohibition against waving the flag was not annulled, enforcement by means of indictments is not done because of agreements with the PA.

Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Elazar Bialin ruled that since the PLO is still designated as a terrorist organization, the flag should not be returned, even if the case is closed. However, this same flag was flown when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Netanyahu at the prime minister’s residence in 2010.

In a 2019 case in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, the court criticized the police for having confiscated a Palestinian flag in Sheikh Jarrah. Jerusalem District Chief Supt. Niso Guetta admitted that he ordered the confiscation of the flag, saying that, “On the basis of past and present experience, many instances of serious disturbances began with the waving of the PLO flag.” He added, however, that the protest was “peaceful” and that “the mere act of waving a Palestinian flag does not constitute a disturbance of the peace and in itself does not meet the test of presenting a clear and present danger.”

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