National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has gone too far in ordering police to remove Palestinian flags from public spaces and arguing that they display an identification with terrorism. In the interest of upholding free speech, we urge the government to reconsider the matter carefully and overrule this directive, which in any case will be extremely difficult to back up in court and enforce on the ground.
We understand that Ben-Gvir’s order came a day after protesters against the government’s planned legal revolution hoisted Palestinian flags at a large rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, and a week after freed Palestinian security prisoner Karim Younis – who served a 40-year term for kidnapping and murdering IDF soldier Avraham Bromberg – waved a Palestinian flag while receiving a hero’s welcome in his home village of Ara in northern Israel.
As offensive as such images are for many Israelis, banning Palestinian flags – which have powerful symbolism for the Palestinian people – do not help Israel. With his legal background, Ben-Gvir should know that the ban crosses a red line on free expression but also raises a red flag.
“It can’t be that lawbreakers wave terror flags, incite and support terror, and therefore I have ordered that terror-supporting flags be removed from the public space,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement on Sunday. “Identifying with a terrorist and with harming IDF soldiers is not protected under freedom of speech.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also tweeted that the presence of Palestinian flags at the Tel Aviv protest was “wild incitement,” but he refrained from publicly backing Ben-Gvir’s announcement.
Following Ben-Gvir’s announcement, Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai ordered police commanders to remove Palestinian flags from public spaces throughout Israel.
What does Israeli law say about Palestinian flags?
From a legal standpoint, Israeli law does not prohibit the display of Palestinian flags. From a security standpoint, security forces have in the past exercised the right to remove them when they are deemed to be a threat to public security, although this has often triggered international condemnation. In May of last year, police sparked such an outcry when they ripped away Palestinian flags from mourners at the funeral procession for Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, almost causing her coffin to fall.
It should be noted that before the Oslo Accords were signed 30 years ago, the Israeli government considered the red, green and white Palestinian flag to be a symbol of terrorism, but the peace deals signed between Israel and the PLO effectively ended the ban.
Legal experts said Ben-Gvir’s order is unlikely to withstand legal scrutiny and could even be ruled illegal. Channel 13 News reported that police had sought advice from government legal counselors on how the order could be carried out.
According to the Attorney-General’s Office, Palestinian flags can be removed only when there is a high probability that “waving the flag will lead to serious disruption of the public peace.”
The issue of the Palestinian flag is a kind of litmus test for the new Netanyahu government, and ultimately should be ruled on by the prime minister himself.
On one hand, backing Ben-Gvir’s ban could help turn the issue into a cause célèbre for the Palestinian Authority, which has already received support from the United Nations in its challenge against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Israel’s punitive measures against the PA – including the withholding of tax revenues – have already drawn condemnation and concern from Jerusalem’s allies, including the United States.
On the other hand, this could be an opportunity for Netanyahu to show Ben-Gvir who is really in charge. While he might understand the motivation for the move, the prime minister could make it clear that it is legally questionable and practically not enforceable. Pictures of Israeli police tearing down Palestinian flags will not help Israel. But most importantly, it will make Israel look like it is not interested in respecting civil rights – and this includes the right to wave Palestinian flags, whether we like it or not.