WATCH: Israeli police snatch Palestinian flags from protesters in Jerusalem

If the Palestinian flag is legal, why do Israeli police view it as such a threat?

In East Jerusalem, the city Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state, waving the Palestinian national flag is becoming verboten. Over the past year, activists have noticed an increase in police attempts to confiscate the flags during demonstrations across the city.

The latest example came earlier this month, during a protest against the eviction of the Sabag and Hamad families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. A video published by Israeli activist Guy Butavia shows group of Israeli police officers walking into a crowd of Palestinian and left-wing Israeli activists (including +972 writer Orly Noy), many of whom are holding small Palestinian stick flags. The officers proceed to confiscate the flags, one by one.

At first, it almost seems like some kind of game; the protesters appear bemused, as if they know they are actors in some kind of bizarre political theater. Once it becomes clear, however, that the officers are intent on taking every single Palestinian flag in sight — one officer even climbs a tree to get the job done — the demonstrators grow angry. “Why are you so bothered by seeing a Palestinian flag in Palestine?” asks activist Sahar Vardi through a megaphone. By the end of the video, it appears the police have all the flags in their possession.

Prior to the Oslo Accords, Israel considered flying the Palestinian flag — still referred to in Israel as the flag of the Palestine Liberation Organization — a criminal offense. The scene at Sheikh Jarrah was reminiscent of the days of the First Intifada, when videos showed Israeli soldiers removing Palestinian flags from public buildings across the West Bank and Gaza in the years of the mass uprising.

As part of the Madrid peace talks, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and in the Oslo years decided there was no longer any public interest in enforcing the ban. Moreover, as Adalah Attorney Mohammad Bassam noted in 2016, the flag is no longer considered the PLO flag, but “is recognized and flies at the United Nations as the official flag of the Palestinian Authority and there is nothing on the law books forbidding one to fly it. The High Court of Justice likewise does not see the Palestinian flag as symbolizing a terror organization or as a symbol of support for terrorism.”

And yet, the PLO still technically appears on Israel’s list of terrorist organizations, giving Israeli security forces leeway when deciding whether or not to confiscate — and even arrest those flying — Palestinian flags.

According to statistics Israeli police provided to the Movement for Freedom of Information, police arrested 96 Israeli citizens on suspicion of waving the Palestinian flag between 2011 and 2015, with indictments filed in 45 of these cases (47 percent).

+972 Magazine asked an Israel Police spokesperson why the officers so methodically confiscated the Palestinian flags in Sheikh Jarrah earlier this month, and under where they drew the authority to do so.

The spokesperson responded that officers have the discretion to confiscate flags “when there is a high level of probability that flying them will result in the violation of public safety, or in any case where there is suspicion of an offense under Section 4 of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance,” which outlaws possession of “propaganda material” associated with groups deemed terrorist organizations, among other things.

Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish supporters protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish supporters protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The spokesperson further emphasized that the police carry out enforcement against “lawbreakers, not against flag-wavers.” It is not clear why police believe the flag-wavers were lawbreakers, however. Officers did not arrest the protesters waving flags — or any protesters that day.

The controversy in Israel over the Palestinian flag is also a political matter. The Israeli right, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, wasted no time to exploit the sight of a few dozen demonstrators waved Palestinian flags in Rabin Square at a massive rally against the Jewish Nation-State Law last summer. Israeli police did not arrest a single person for waving the Palestinian flag that night either.

Weeks later, however, Likud MK Anat Berko proposed legislation that would ban the public display of Palestinian flags in Israel. Violators could be sentenced to up to a year in prison.