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26 May 2022

Israel’s double standard on flag-waving is a risk to democracy

An annual Israeli nationalist march is going ahead. Compare that with how its authorities react to Palestinian flags.

By Alona Ferber

The Jerusalem Day march marks the anniversary of Israel’s capture of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. Waving the Israeli flag, the crowd sings and dances through the Old City every year, including the Muslim Quarter. The atmosphere can grow tense, with some shouting racist chants. Footage from last year shows a crowd of young men from Israel’s nationalist religious right chanting “death to Arabs”. 

Palestinians have long said the march is a “provocation”. Last year, with heightened tensions in East Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount holy site ahead of the flag parade, Hamas fired rockets on Jerusalem as the procession got under way. Eleven days of conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip ensued. Authorities postponed the march until June 2021, diverting it away from its traditional route.  

This year, despite coming yet again on the back of weeks of tension and violence, and despite Hamas repeating its threats of attack if the march takes place, the flag parade has been officially approved. The authorities are limiting attendance at the Western Wall and Damascus Gate, citing crowding concerns, but the march is set to proceed on its traditional path.

Responding to the news that the parade would go ahead, the right-wing organisation Im Tirtzu described it as “an ancestral right”. And it seems that Israel wants to protect the right of marchers to fly the Israeli flag, even in circumstances that have led to incitement and violence. After all, the procession, scheduled for Sunday (29 May), comes not long after the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqla, a national symbol for Palestinians, was gunned down in the West Bank, provoking a mass outpouring of grief.

The 51-year-old was killed while covering an Israeli army raid in Jenin in the West Bank. The fallout is still ongoing, with the Israeli military announcing that it will not launch a criminal investigation into her killing, while the Palestinians, who maintain that Israeli forces killed Abu Aqla, have formally asked the International Criminal Court to investigate. Recent weeks have also seen tension over access to the Temple Mount holy site. Violence within Israel and in the Palestinian territories has persisted throughout the year.

Compare this with how the Israeli authorities treat those wishing to wave the Palestinian flag. Footage from Abu Aqla’s funeral shows police officers pulling Palestinian flags from the funeral vehicle. Jerusalem’s police chief had reportedly given an order for Palestinian flags to be confiscated and for officers to stop mourners waving them during the procession. Police sources said the event was too “sensitive” for the flags to be flown when “any friction could lead to a more violent confrontation”. Video also showed police nearly knocking Abu Aqla’s coffin to the ground as mourners held it aloft.

The incident sparked a domestic debate. Israel’s left-wing broadsheet Haaretz published an editorial that argued that waving a Palestinian flag should be protected by “freedom of expression”, adding, “The questions that must be asked are why it should be forbidden to wave Palestinian flags at all, much less at the funeral of a journalist who was, both in life and in death, a Palestinian national symbol.”

This is by no means a common view within Israel. As at Abu Aqla’s funeral, Israel’s police have expended time and effort removing Palestinian flags, whether from protests by residents of East Jerusalem or students at Israeli universities.

Last year, after such an incident in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a local court ruled that waving a Palestinian flag was not, in fact, illegal. But in the mainstream Israeli imagination, and certainly further to the right of the political spectrum, the Palestinian flag is associated with an enemy, with terrorism and, indeed, fears of Palestinian national identity. Writing last year in Haaretz, Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now traced what he termed Israel’s “obsession” with the flag to its association with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), with whom Israel signed the Oslo Accords peace treaty in 1993.

Though Israeli citizens who wish to wave the Israeli flag are protected by security forces, as happens on Jerusalem Day every year, police tend to confiscate Palestinian flags, even detaining those who carry them.

[See also: Attacks in Israel show peace with its neighbours is not enough]

This difference is no trivial matter. Recent rhetoric shows how much this issue can stress the already less than harmonious ties between Arabs and Jews in a country living in conflict. The right-wing party of the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud, is reportedly looking to use the hot-button issue of flags to attract voters from further to the right in its next election campaign, by pledging to introduce prison terms for waving the Palestinian flag. Standing at the podium in Israel’s Knesset parliament just this week, Israel Katz, a senior member of Likud, threatened students who wish to wave the Palestinian flag. 

“Yesterday I warned the Arab students, who wave Palestinian flags in universities: remember 1948,” he tweeted with a video of his comments, in reference to the year that the state of Israel was established. “Remember our independence war and your Nakba [catastrophe, the term Palestinians use to refer to the Israel’s establishment], don’t push it. Enough of the domestic terrorism of Israel’s Arabs. Enough of the violence against Jews in the mixed cities, if you don’t calm down, we will teach you a lesson that won’t be forgotten.”   

The violence implied in that threat, spoken by a politician from one of Israel’s major political parties, is shocking. But it also gives an insight into the significance of the flag double standard. In using the Palestinian flag as a political football, and in allowing right-wing Israelis to wave flags and shout racist chants in areas where Palestinians live and work, Israeli politicians are playing a dangerous game with an already unstable status quo. The problem is that, no matter how often Israeli authorities might confiscate the Palestinian flag or detain protesters, no matter how much they might try to equate the flag with danger in the public imagination, they cannot wish out of existence the national identity that it symbolises.

Israel, which defines itself as a democracy, should look to protect the freedom to express identity. It has been hollowed out by repetition, but Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the newly established state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”.

Either all Israelis have the right to express their identity, or security considerations trump that right – whether the flag in question is Palestinian, or whether it is an Israeli flag being waved through the Old City of Jerusalem as the crowd chants “death to Arabs”.

Clarification: this article was updated on 13 July to emphasise that the Israeli military is not launching a criminal investigation into the death of Shireen Abu Aqla. It is conducting a non-criminal probe into the incident.

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