Why Is Israel at War With the Palestinian Flag?

From the first intifada to Sheikh Jarrah, Israel has targeted the key symbol of the Palestinian national movement: Its flag. And that obsessional, zero-sum, jingoistic antipathy is stronger than ever

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From the first intifada to Sheikh Jarrah today, Israel’s war against the symbol of the Palestinian national movement has been fueled by obsessive, vindictive, zero-sum jingoism
From the first intifada to Sheikh Jarrah today, Israel’s war against the symbol of the Palestinian national movement has been fueled by obsessive, vindictive, zero-sum jingoism Credit: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias
Ori Nir
Ori Nir

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Israeli obsession with the Palestinian flag is a good example. 

I have been watching video snippets last week of Jerusalem police officers warning protestors in Sheikh Jarrah that they would disperse them if anyone dared raise a Palestinian flag. 

Then, once the demonstrators took out a handful of tiny postcard-sized flags, the kind that you hold between your thumb and index finger, the police officers indeed went on to shove the demonstrators, beat them, then break and confiscate their flags. They even arrested one of the activists, on charges of waving the flag. A Jerusalem court later dismissed the charge, ruling that flying the Palestinian flag is not illegal

Israeli police violently confiscate small Palestinian flags from Sheikh Jarrah protestors

In fact, the status of the Palestinian flag under Israeli law is still vague. And based on past experience, this issue is certain to reemerge.

As I watched these videos, I thought about the serpentine road that Israelis and Palestinians have traveled in the past four decades, in their battle over symbols. 

The first time I wrote about the Palestinian flag – also known to Israelis as the PLO flag, a misnomer – was in January 1987. In the column I then wrote for Haaretz, I described Article 5 of Military Order 101 of the occupation’s legal code, which decreed, "It is forbidden to hoist, wave or place political flags or symbols, except by permit of the military commander."

No permit was ever issued, and young Palestinians used to sit in prison for months for waving their flag. The colors of the flag, however, were not outlawed, so Palestinians found creative ways to celebrate in public the black, white, green and red of their flag, such as through their clothing and as shop displays. 

When the first intifada erupted, a year later, the flag became ubiquitous in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Young women used to sew them by hand, and young men would climb on electricity poles to hang the flags, risking their lives – and sometimes losing their lives – in the act.

A sculpture in Yasser Arafat Square in downtown Ramallah depicting an iconic image of the first intifada: A teen climbing a pole to raise the Palestinian national flagCredit: Ori NIr

The practice became so iconic that years later, after the Palestinian Authority took control of West Bank towns, a large monument, a sculpture showing a Palestinian teen climbing a pole with the national flag, was strategically placed in downtown Ramallah, at Yasser Arafat Square. 

The war against the symbol of the Palestinian national movement was waged not only in the occupied territories. In 1986, an Israeli Jew from Ramat Gan, a member of the Israeli Council for Israel-Palestine Peace, a small peace organization, was the target of a police investigation for wearing a tiny lapel pin on his shirt crossing the flags of the State of Israel and the Palestinian national movement. 

The first intifada ended. Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and negotiated political accords with it, which were supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood. 

Did the obsession with the Palestinian flag end? Not quite. While the Palestinian flag made its way to international institutions, even to the Knesset, it was still the cause for action against demonstrators, on both sides of the Green Line, and sometimes even for arrest.

In 2001, the Israeli civil rights organization Adalah asked the Attorney General’s office to clarify the policy. Adalah pointed out that in 1993, following the Oslo accords, then Chief of Police Raffi Peled wrote in a letter to the Knesset that, since the PLO was no longer considered a terrorist organization, waving its flag "is not illegal." 

Indeed, through the mid and late 1990s, Israeli authorities hardly bothered with the flag. Two Attorneys General during that period determined that there was no public interest in pursuing flag-wavers. 

But the PLO still appears in Israeli government official documents, even today, as a terrorist organization. Therefore, waving the PLO’s flag, as the Attorney General’s office opined in 2001, could be interpreted as identifying with a terrorist organization, which is a crime. 

An Israeli soldier kicks a Palestinian flag during a protest against the U.S. president Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 29, 2020. Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

The test, according to the AG’s office then, was whether the flag-waver had "criminal intent," whether he or she "saw himself as identifying with the PLO as a terrorist organization." 

The question of intent, the flag-waver’s intent, was the chief rationale that Jerusalem Police offered for taking action against flag-bearing demonstrators in recent months, referring to the intention to identify with terrorists or to incite violence. Can a law enforcement officer determine what a demonstrator’s intent is?

It is ironic that the antipathy to the Palestinian flag is framed as a concern about Palestinians associating or identifying with the PLO.

Today, in the Palestinian arena, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Liberation Organization is the last to still endorse a compromise peace deal with Israel. Its agents in the West Bank cooperate with Israel’s security agencies to confront and thwart anti-Israel terrorism, actions which, seen as collaboration with the occupier, consistently diminish popular support for the institution and its leaders.

Israeli ultra-nationalists wave flags at the 'Flags March' as they enter Jerusalem's Old City at the Lion's GateCredit: THOMAS COEX/AFP

As Palestinians justifiably view it, the pursuit of the flag-wavers is an expression of Israel’s hostile attitude toward Palestinian nationalism. It’s an expression of the zero-sum attitude toward sovereignty and national rights in the land that lies between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. 

It is propelled by the same spirit that gave birth to the Nation State Law, the same spirit that prompts Israeli settlers and their allies in the government to dispossess Palestinians of their West Bank land and their Jerusalem homes. 

It is fuelled by the same exclusivist, uncompromising jingoistic spirit, which is driving Israel toward becoming a binational state that is neither politically democratic nor ethically Jewish. 

Ori Nir, formerly Haaretz's West Bank and Washington correspondent, is Americans for Peace Now's vice president for public affairs. Twitter: @OriNir_APN

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