The Palestinian flag: Striking a nerve and possibly struck down

After Palestinian flags flown at protest in central Tel Aviv, Israeli parliamentarian moves to ban the controversial symbol from the public sphere.

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
August 25, 2018 12:03
The Palestinian flag: Striking a nerve and possibly struck down

Israeli Arabs and their supporters take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel August 11, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

 
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A nerve evidently was struck among a segment of the Israeli public when earlier this month Palestinian flags adorned the iconic Rabin Square at a protest against the Nation-State Law, which bestows quasi-constitutional status to Israel's Jewish character but fails to reaffirm the equality of all citizens, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and other parliamentary laws.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the day after tweeted in reference to the demonstration that, "there is no greater testament to the necessity of this [Nation-State Law]. We will continue to wave the Israeli flag and sing Hatikvah [the national anthem] with great pride."

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Indeed, for many right-leaning Israelis the scene in central Tel Aviv was construed as further proof of the rejection of Jewish self-determination by a significant portion of the country's Arab minority. Some of these individuals view the Arab population, along with its leadership, as a "fifth column" because many identify more closely with the Palestinian cause and thus seek to advance it, even to the detriment of the state.

In response, Dr. Anat Berko, an Israeli lawmaker from Prime Minister Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party, plans to advance legislation when parliament (the Knesset) reconvenes in October that would ban flying the flags of all "enemy nations."

While she contended to The Media Line that the bill does not specifically target the Palestinians and equally applies to Syria or Hezbollah, for example, she qualified that the prohibition must extend to to the Palestinians because "[Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas is not ready to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. If there was a peace process and Netanyahu sat together with Abbas with the two flags displayed, then this would help alleviate the problem."

In this respect, Dr. Berko noted that the proscription would apply only to cases in the public sphere in which the Palestinian flag is flown in the absence of an Israeli one as well.

"When we see demonstrations in [the northern Arab-Israeli city of] Umm el-Fahm—whose citizens have full rights—and the Palestinian flag is being waved by people describing Israel as a Palestinian state this is unacceptable," she expounded. "Just this week there was a funeral there [for a resident killed while perpetrating a terror attack] the moment was used to incite against the country.

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"[By contrast], there was also a Druze demonstration against [the Nation-State law], but you saw no opposition to Israel's right to exist. The protest ended with Hatikvah, but this is not the case with the Arabs and their [elected] officials. They do not recognize Israel even though there are laws that prevent them from serving in the Knesset."

Dr. Berko points to a number of cases, including the jailing last year of former lawmaker Basel Ghattas, who confessed to smuggling cell phones to security prisoners. She also pointed a finger at parliamentarian Haneen Zoabi, who previously boarded a flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and in the past affirmed that, “the Jews are not a nationality, so we cannot talk about self-determination for the Jewish people.”

Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Balad party, which is part of the Joint (Arab) List, described Dr. Berko's legislation as “racist, cowardly and an attempt to hide Palestinian identity that will not succeed." His fellow Joint Lister Aida Touma-Sliman affirmed that, "those who think Arab citizens must prove their loyalty to Israel by denying their national identity are very wrong." They both suggested that the initiative is part and parcel, along with the Nation-State Law, of a trend of discrimination in Israel.

In May, Israel's top court upheld a 2016 amendment to Basic Law: The Knesset, authorizing parliament—by a supra-majority of 90 members in the 120-seat chamber—to remove legislators deemed to have acted “in a way constituting incitement to racism or support of an armed struggle against the State of Israel.”

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote in the ruling that whereas the law "seriously infringes [on] basic rights…it cannot be said [to] contradict the core of [the] state's democratic identity."

The legislative push was initiated at the height of the so-called "Stabbing Intifada," after Zoabi, Ghattas and Zahalka met with relatives of Palestinian terrorists killed by Israeli security forces while perpetrating attacks. At the time, multiple reports claimed that the condolence call began with a moment of silence for the "martyrs."

One year earlier the Israeli security cabinet effectively banned the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, the Muslim Brotherhood's local offshoot whose leader Raed Salah was imprisoned for fueling unrest over the claim that "Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger." The Northern Branch's ties to Hamas—the Palestinian incarnation of the Brotherhood—in addition to its opposition to the Oslo peace process and boycott of the Knesset were other major factors in the determination.

The Israeli parliament in 2011 similarly passed the "Naqba Law," an amendment to the Budget Principles Law, aimed at curbing events commemorating what Palestinians refer to as the "catastrophe" of Israel's creation in 1948. The law calls for public funding to be denied to, and potential financial penalties imposed on, any institution that, among other things, "marks Israel Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the State as a day of mourning."

According to Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, "the 'Naqba Law' was an infringement on speech that is legitimate, although I can understand how viewing the black flags [of radical Islam] on Independence Day could be upsetting.

"But we have to understand," he elaborated to The Media Line, "that there are different narratives about what happened in 1948—there was a war, people died and others were displaced. It was a catastrophe for some and that is not in dispute. So it is understandable that people mark this occasion and this does not necessarily entail opposition to Israel's right to exist. There may be a link, but there is no [causal connection]."

Dr. Fuchs likewise concedes that for many Israelis the Palestinian flag continues to represent terrorism. However, "the flag's meaning has changed since the [inception] of the Palestine Liberation Organization and now it is not only the flag of all Palestinians but also for Arabs in Israel who identify as such. Again, this does not require that all those [flying a foreign flag] reject the state. This was proven by the Druze mass demonstration [against the Nation-State Law], after which no Israelis were unhappy about the presence of the Druze flag."

There is, then, an obvious sensitivity when it comes to Israel's Arab citizens, manifest in initiatives aimed at suppressing the overt expression of, and general identification with, Palestinian nationalism. This is, presumably, at least in part driven by a recognition—if not fear—that support of this kind could reach a critical mass at which point Zionism, the founding ethos of the Jewish state, might be challenged.

While most agree that whether the Palestinian flag should be outlawed is largely a product of how one interprets the symbol, there is no consensus on the horizon regarding the efficacy of options for dealing with those who embrace what some see as an abrasive symbol.

Those waving it while chanting, "With spirit, with blood we shall redeem you, Palestine"—as some did during the Nation-State law demonstration—are undeniably advocating for the destruction of Israel; while others who may choose to fly the Palestinian colors to express disagreement with the Israeli military presence in the West bank, or simply as a means of promoting the two-state solution, which the Netanyahu government ostensibly backs, might arguably be embracing a cause without espousing calls for harm to the state.

Some observers thus maintain that attributing a uniform intention to an entire cohort—even one that, on the whole, demonstrates hostile tendencies—is precarious territory for a democratic government.

The fine line between upholding the state's values and respecting dissent might therefore be reconciled by drafting bills that include specific examples of behaviors that cross over into realm of sedition, instead of vaguely-worded texts with blanket definitions of "incitement" that leave much room for interpretation.

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