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Explainer: What is behind Israel’s Ben-Gvir's ban on Palestinian flags in public spaces?

Considering the Palestinian flag as incitement to terror, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir seeks to prevent its waving wherever he can.
Arab Israeli Karim Younes is carried by friends and relatives following his release after 40 years in an Israeli prison for kidnapping and murdering an Israeli soldier, Ara, Israel, Jan. 5, 2023.

Newly appointed National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir instructed police on Sunday to remove Palestinian flags from public places, wherever such acts could be considered incitement to terror.

"Today I directed the Israeli police to enforce the prohibition of flying in public spaces any PLO flag that shows identification with a terrorist organization, and to stop any incitement against the State of Israel. We will fight terrorism and the encouragement of terrorism with all our might! " tweeted Ben-Gvir.

According to Ben-Gvir’s order, any police officer, at whatever rank, would be authorized to remove Palestinian flags from public places. Police officers would not need to wait for approval from senior commanders to do so. Their own interpretation of whether a flag disturbs public order or supports terrorism would suffice.

Why now?

In his years as activist and politician, Ben-Gvir has been excessively preoccupied with national symbols, which is why this order is not surprising.

The release last Friday from prison of Palestinian Karim Younis, after 40 years in Israeli jail, offered Ben-Gvir the trigger he needed to publish the new instruction. Ben-Gvir had ordered the police to prevent festivities in Younis’ home village Ara upon the release. Still, police enabled people there to gather and to set up a tent where speeches were delivered in Younis’ honor. The gathering was stopped a few times by police when the Palestinian flag was waved. Ben-Gvir has now ordered to check why the police did not prevent the festivities all together, as he had asked.

A second trigger for the instruction was pictures published on social media of the Palestinian flag waved during one of the two anti-government mass rallies that took place in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

Explaining the legal angle 

Waving Palestinian flags has been the subject of several petitions and court debates in Israel over the past two decades. Israeli law does not enable outlawing a flag. Rather, the police commissioner can prevent waving flags when deemed a criminal act. In other words, police must consider the waving as incitement to breach public order, demonstration of terror support, etc. The decision to confiscate flags is thus up to the discretion of the police, in consultation with the legal system. Over the years, Jerusalem police have been strict in preventing the waving of Palestinian flags, while Tel Aviv police have been more lenient.

Ben-Gvir’s predecessor, Omer Bar Lev, had ordered last September to limit the confiscation of Palestinian flags as much as possible. Flags could only be confiscated during demonstrations under certain, exceptional circumstances, when they constitute a direct threat to public order and safety. The instruction of Bar Lev came following the Jerusalem police yearslong modus operandi and following the confiscation of flags during demonstrations in 2022 in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The court later ruled that the police had the authority to confiscate flags at the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations, but State Prosecution did not indict anyone for this.

Why it matters

Ben-Gvir has announced several strong-arm policies since taking office. On Friday, he informed Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana that from now on not every Knesset member will be able to visit security (Palestinian) prisoners. Only one legislator from each party will be authorized to do so. On Saturday, police broke up a meeting of school parents in the east Jerusalem Issawiya neighborhood, claiming Palestinian Authority (PA) officials were present.

Evidently, Ben-Gvir’s latest move increases tensions both within Israeli society, between Jews and Arabs, and between Israel and the PA. Both issues are expected to come up at the reported visit at the end of January in Israel of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

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