Bill to Ban Palestinian Flag at State-funded Institutions Gets Preliminary Knesset Approval

Likud lawmaker who sponsored the bill calls Arab lawmakers 'jealous' of Israel, tells them to 'go the Gaza or Jordan'

Likud's Eli Cohen (left) and the Joint List's Ahmad Tibi at the Knesset, on Wednesday.
Likud's Eli Cohen (left) and the Joint List's Ahmad Tibi at the Knesset, on Wednesday.Credit: Emil Salman

A bill banning people from flying Palestinian flags at state-funded institutions passed a preliminary Knesset vote on Wednesday, with 63 in favor and 16 against.

The bill must pass three additional Knesset votes to become law, but that isn't expected to happen soon, as the coalition plans to stall further debate on it. The vote comes amid a fierce public debate over Palestinian flags on Israeli university campuses, following several events marking the Nakba Day.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett voted for the bill. Lawmakers from Meretz, a left-wing party in the coalition, and the Joint List, a predominantly Arab opposition party, opposed the bill. Lawmakers from thee coalition parties – Labor, Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan – did not attend the vote.

The bill would make it illegal to fly Palestinian flags or the flags of "enemy states" at institutions funded by the state, and would affect most public institutions.

During the Knesset debate preceding the vote, Likud lawmaker Eli Cohen, who sponsored the bill, shouted at Sami Abu Shehadeh, an Arab lawmaker from the Joint List, that he should "go to Gaza or Jordan."

Cohen, a former minister, also said that "Nakba Day is your day of jealousy of Israel ... Your eyes pop out when you see how we turned the State of Israel into a powerful country." He then went on to say that "the State of Israel is a free country. Those who see themselves as Palestinians are invited to move to Gaza or Jordan. I promise you funding for the transportation."

Another Joint List lawmaker, Waleed Taha, shouted that Cohen was a racist. Cohen proceeded to attack members of the United Arab List, an Arab party in the Bennett coalition: "For you, everything is for sale. You have no values, you have no ideology."

Cohen's remarks were met with jeers from a number of Knesset members, with Meretz's Mossi Raz shouting that he should be ashamed.

The Joint List's chairman, Ayman Odeh, told lawmakers: "About seven years ago the Knesset banned commemoration of the Nakba Day, and since then more and more people are doing that. You're acting just like any colonialist, any thief. You're afraid of the flag, you deny the Nakba."

Nakba Day commemorates the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 war over Israel's creation. It is marked on May 15, the anniversary of Israel's establishment, with pro-Palestinian protests around the world, after being declared an official day of remembrance by Yasser Arafat in 1998. Each year, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza demonstrate near the border fence with Israel on Nakba Day.

Protesters hold a Palestinian flag in Haifa, April.Credit: Fadi Amun

The vote came after outcry over a Nakba Day rally at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva last month in which students waved Palestinian flags, prompting condemnation by the mayor and a call by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cut funding to the university.

Also last month, police were ordered to prevent the waving of Palestinian flags and to confiscate any Palestinian flags they saw during the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, which saw police striking mourners with batons. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has ordered a probe into police conduct at the funeral.

Meanwhile, the United Arab List has still not made a decision on how to vote on a divisive bill renewing the regulation that makes Israeli settlers in the West Bank subject to Israeli law.

A senior party source said its leaders are divided and would rather have the bill be delayed until the end of the Knesset’s summer session. “From our point of view, this law is no less important than the Citizenship Law,” the source said, referring to its opposition to the extension of legislation barring Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza whoa re married to Israelis from receiving residency rights.

Nevertheless, there are indications that the UAL isn’t interested in creating a coalition crisis that could lead to early elections. Over the past several days, the party has stayed quiet regarding the legislation and has declined to make any statements to the media.

Party sources said they would wait until the last minute to make a decision, on the assumption that a delay could cause the opposition to revise its position and support the legislation. Should it do so, the UAL would have the best of both worlds, neither defeating a law supported by the coalition nor supporting a law that stands in opposition to the party’s platform.

“Without a doubt, this is a very bad law that is automatically renewed every year ,” a party official told Haaretz. “Now we’re at a crossroads – the sense in the coalition is that it’s on life support, but no one wants to to turn it off for fear of being blamed for the collapse of the coalition.”

According to this official, the right wing of the coalition wants either the UAL or Meretz to be the party that brings down the government, so those parties “need to act very cautiously."

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