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Israel's Arab Knesset members fight bill restricting Palestinian flag

Israel’s Knesset is considering a bill banning Palestinian flags from being raised at Israeli-funded institutions and universities inside the Green Line.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — An Israeli bill banning the display of the Palestinian flag at Israeli government-funded institutions including universities passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset on June 1, with 63 votes in favor and 16 against.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, who is also the leader of the Israeli right-wing Yamina party, voted in favor of the bill put forward by the Likud party, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Arab-Israeli students organized a sit-in on May 23 at the Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, in southern Israel, on the occasion of Nakba Day. The students waved the Palestinian flag and sang patriotic songs. Dozens of Israeli students held a counter-protest in response and raised Israeli flags.

Israeli security forces have recently suppressed several events where the Palestinian flag was raised and even raided homes that flew the flag in the town of Hawara near Nablus and in several Jerusalem neighborhoods. Jewish settlers attacked Palestinian vehicles that flew the flag in the streets of the West Bank.

Arab Knesset member Aida Touma told Al-Monitor, “The bill reflects fear of the Palestinian flag. Israel is trying to erase the Palestinian memory, conceal the crimes committed daily against the Palestinian people and promote the narrative that there is no Palestinian people and no Palestinian flag.”

Touma explained that the bill bans raising the flag at institutions supported and financed by the Israeli government. “The bill was tailored for universities and against students, especially after the protest at the university in Beersheba on the anniversary of the Nakba. Palestinian students raised their national flag to express pride in their identity and affiliation, which provoked the anger of settlers and extremists,” she said.

She added, “If the bill passes the remaining readings, Palestinians will face yet another challenge. This, however, will not erase the identity of our people, but rather push Palestinians to devise new ways and methods to raise the Palestinian flag inside the Green Line. Whoever thinks a law will prevent us from raising the Palestinian flag is definitely mistaken.”

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel's Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance has prohibited raising the Palestinian flag as a symbol and flag of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is outlawed under Israeli law. But in the wake of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Israeli attorney general in 1994 directed the Israeli authorities not to prosecute those who raise the flag, citing Israel’s recognition of the PLO and the fact that it signed the accords with it. 

In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that raising the flag of Palestine during Arab political parties events inside the Green Line is protected freedom of expression.

Arab Knesset member Sami Abu Shehadeh of the Joint List told Al-Monitor that the bill is part of “ongoing attempts since 1948 to erase the national affiliation and identity of the Palestinian people within the Green Line. But these attempts have been unsuccessful despite the fact that Israel prevents Palestinian students from studying their history under the Israeli curriculum.”

He noted that the bill has several loopholes. “Israel cannot treat the Palestinian flag as a flag of an enemy state — as stated in the bill — in light of the Oslo Accords. The flag is for all the Palestinian people all around the world. The attempts to ban the Palestinian flag inside the Green Line will backfire. We will see more flags everywhere.”

Abu Shehadeh pointed out, “Israel prevented the Palestinians inside the Green Line from 1948 until 1994 from raising the Palestinian flag. However, the young generation during that period defied Israel" and crafted their own flags. "Some even broke this ban and raised the flag, risking arrest by Israeli forces. This battle will continue today. If the bill is passed, we will go to the Israeli Supreme Court.”

Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, also of the Joint List, told Al-Monitor that the bill is prejudiced against Palestinian symbolism, as raising the Palestinian flag is no longer considered a violation of Israeli law. “Israeli officials would raise the Palestinian flag at their own homes and headquarters when they hosted Palestinian officials,” he noted. 

Tibi argued the bill “reflects mounting extremism and fascism in the Israeli street. Israelis want to undermine the Palestinian identity so they prevent the Palestinian flag from flying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, at the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and in the streets of Palestinian towns and villages. Now they want to ban our students from waving it in universities.”

Writer and political analyst Elif Sabbagh warned that if passed, the bill will prevent university students who celebrate national events inside universities from raising the Palestinian flag. “However, the flag will be waved outside the university campus. No one can prevent us from raising the Palestinian flag,” he told Al-Monitor.

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