Flagophobia: Israel's escalating war on the Palestinian national flag

Analysis - Palestinian flag
9 min read
15 June, 2022
Analysis: Israel's intensifying crackdown on the iconic red, green, black and white flag reflects an ongoing erasure of Palestinian identity and a growing sense of internal political turmoil.

With the rising tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over the past weeks, a heightened and rather narrow perception of what constitutes a threat to Israel’s national security came to light.

No longer it is about the Palestinian protests, stone-throwers, or even Hamas rockets, but now the very symbol of Palestinian national identity has become a threat: the red, green, black, and white Palestinian flag.

During Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral, dozens of Israeli police officers stormed the procession and violently tried to stop the mourners from marching outside the hospital, almost causing the pallbearers to drop the slain journalist’s casket.

A primary target for the force was the Palestinian flags. The police attacked everyone carrying a Palestinian flag, going as far as smashing the hearse window to remove a flag that was laid inside.

"No longer it is about the Palestinian protests, stone-throwers, or even Hamas rockets, but now the very symbol of Palestinian national identity has become a threat: the red, green, black, and white Palestinian flag"

This came after the Israeli authorities had raided Abu Akleh’s family home and forcibly removed all the flags at the premises. The order reportedly came from a district police chief to ensure that Palestinian colours do not fly at the event.

Marking the Nakba 74th anniversary a few days later, hundreds of Palestinian-Israeli students waving Palestinian flags at the Ben-Gurion and Tel-Aviv Universities were interrupted by Jewish right-wing activists. The incident eventually escalated into violence between the two sides and led to the arrest of three Palestinians by the Israeli police.

The sight of the flags angered Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who threatened to cut Ben-Gurion University’s budget. Meanwhile, Education Minister Yifat Sasha-Biton stated that the images from Ben-Gurion University were unacceptable, vowing to look into the issue and examine whether the event fell under the category of “incitement, violence, or harm against the state’s symbols.”  

This all happened against the backdrop of a hectic flag-removing campaign by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), Israeli police, and settlers across Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Israeli forces violently attacked mourners attending the funeral of killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, specifically targeting the Palestinian flag, in Jerusalem on May 13th, 2022. [Getty]
Israeli forces violently attacked mourners attending the funeral of killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, specifically targeting the Palestinian flag, in Jerusalem on May 13th, 2022. [Getty]

In the PA-administered West Bank village of Huwwara, the Israeli army was documented removing Palestinian flags from lampposts as well as providing cover to settlers as they, too, snatched the flags.

Other settlers posted online videos of themselves removing Palestinian flags in the village. In other videos, Palestinians were seen reattaching the flags to the lampposts.

Legalising the flag ban 

Last week, the anger over the universities’ flag display found its way to the Knesset, with former prime minister Netanyahu’s Likud introducing a bill outlawing the Palestinian flag in state-funded institutions, including universities.

The bill passed the preliminary reading with 63 to 16 votes, with members of Knesset (MK) from the coalition’s right-wing Tikva Hadasha, Yisrael Beitenu, and Yamina parties — including PM Naftali Bennett – voting alongside the opposition.

The coalition centrist parties Labour, Blue and White, and FM Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid all abstained. Only the Arab Ra’am and left-wing Meretz opposed. 

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The bill still needs to pass three more readings to become law.

The ethnic and ideological split in the vote was striking. On one side stood the Jewish majority, who deemed the Palestinian flag an “enemy flag” and flying it an encroachment upon Israel’s state symbols. On the other, the Arab minority MKs defied the bill, viewing it as a deliberate attack on their national identity as ethnic Palestinians.

Arguably, the split also manifested the hierarchical nature of Israel’s “ethnic democracy,” which gives precedence to Judaism over fundamental rights for all. It translates to only Jews having the full power or right to appropriate the state and make it a tool for advancing their national interests.

While the system grants Palestinians citizens of Israel the right to representation, it still deprives them of meaningful mechanisms to strengthen their political rights vis-à-vis their Jewish counterparts. It is especially tricky when those rights are related to their ethnic and national identity, much of which is seen as antithetical to the Zionist framework that drives and defines the state. The Palestinian flag is one of those  issues.

"For Palestinians, the Israeli “flag frenzy”... is less about imposing state sovereignty and more about suppressing and erasing Palestinian identity and national consciousness"

That considered, it was almost inevitable that the Knesset session would turn into a shouting match between the Jewish and Palestinian MKs. Likud MK Eli Cohen, who proposed the bill, attacked the Arab Joint List, saying that “those who want to be Palestinian, can move to Gaza or Jordan.”   

Citing former PM Yitzhak Shamir, Cohen said: “The Arabs are still the old Arabs, and the sea is still the sea.” The message was that the “Arabs” will never change and their goal will always be driving the Jews into the sea. The Palestinian flag, which he called the “PLO flag,” is only a tool toward that purpose.

"Had they not lived in Israel, they'd be living in fear in Lebanon, in poverty or getting slaughtered in Gaza," Cohen continued as outraged Palestinian MKs were escorted out of the plenum one by one.

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The question of identity

Under Israeli law, according to Adalah, the rights group for Palestinian Israelis, waving the Palestinian flag is not a crime. A police ordinance grants officers the right to confiscate a flag only if “it results in disruption of public order or breach of peace.”

What constitutes “disruption” or “breach of peace,” however, is subject to the assessment of the Israeli police and army. And as the recent events especially in East Jerusalem have shown, breaching the peace can simply mean challenging the occupation-imposed order or displaying Palestinian national symbols, which is also an act of defiance against this order.

From this angle, explained Orly Noy - a member of B’Tselem’s executive board - the crackdown on the Palestinian flag could be interpreted as part of the Zionist rationale of defending Jewish sovereignty.

Yet, the flag-removing campaign is also carried out in the 1967-occupied territories, where Israel does not officially claim sovereignty.

Attacks on Palestinian symbols by Israeli forces have been taking place for decades, but recent months have witnessed an intensification of the crackdown on symbols of national identity, such as the flag and the kuffiyeh. [Getty]
Attacks on Palestinian symbols by Israeli forces have been taking place for decades, but recent months have witnessed an intensification of the crackdown on symbols of national identity, such as the flag and the kuffiyeh. [Getty]

Furthermore, the campaign has also targeted the Palestinian private sphere, as in Shireen Abu Akleh’s residence, and not simply public institutions or avenues regarded as state symbols. 

For Palestinians, the Israeli “flag frenzy,” or what Palestinian MK Ahmad Tibi described as “flagophobia-P” (phobia of the Palestinian flag), is less about imposing state sovereignty and more about suppressing and erasing Palestinian identity and national consciousness.

Hussam Zomlot, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, explained that attacking the Palestinian flag represents “a wholesale denial of [Palestinian] individual and collective rights, and a continuation of the erasure of Palestinian demography and identity since 1948.”

Gaza-based researcher in political affairs and international relations, Jehad Malaka, told The New Arab that the fear of the Palestinian flag has become almost like “a chronic ailment in the occupying society, continuously triggering political irrationality.”

"The flag unifies Palestinians across the globe, as one people and identity sharing the same destiny and national aspirations. Therefore, it acts as an uncomfortable [visual] reminder to Israeli-Jews of the sin of the occupation and the original sin of the 1948 Nakba"

“The obsession with the flag is partly because it represents  Palestinian legitimacy and statehood, as recognised by the international community.”

But importantly, Malaka added, “the flag unifies Palestinians across the globe, as one people and identity sharing the same destiny and national aspirations. Therefore, it acts as an uncomfortable [visual] reminder to Israeli-Jews of the sin of the occupation and the original sin of the 1948 Nakba. After all, Palestinian national symbols refute the Zionist denial of the existence of Palestinians as a unique people and identity, separate from the broader Arab context.”

Why now?

Even though the Israeli attack on Palestinian national symbols has been the norm since 1948, the intensity of the recent wave is unprecedented.

Malaka attributes the escalation, above all else, to Israel’s internal political crisis. The Israeli political system has been reduced to a factional rivalry between the right and far-right, and between those and the centrist and left parties, each is going out of their way to prove their loyalty and commitment to the state at the expense of the country’s stability and Palestinians’ rights.

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“The voice of reason, traditionally represented by the left, has faded away. What remains is a weak, unstable government on the verge of collapse, and the possibility of a general election, the fourth within three years, is now very real.”

“The result is now a heightened sense of insecurity about the future of the state; as such, leading the public and the state institutions to become hypersensitive to otherwise minor threats or nuisances, such as the Palestinian flag,” said Malaka.

The crisis has, in fact, prompted several Israeli officials, including former PM Ehud Barak and current PM Naftali Bennett, to warn that Israel’s existence may be in danger.

Ringing the bells of doom could be a tactical move to scare the internal front toward unity. However, the escalating anti-Palestinian measures, the violent attempts to “prove” Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and the constant threats against Iran and neighbouring countries may suggest that the Israeli political system and national self-confidence are in disarray.

"Even though the Israeli attack on Palestinian national symbols has been the norm since 1948, the intensity of the recent wave is unprecedented"

This trend is evident in a recent poll, which found that 69% of Israeli-Jews are concerned about the future of the Jewish state.

Another cause for concern for the Israeli state, which could further explain the flag campaign, is the rise of Palestinian nationalism among Palestinian citizens of Israel. In the same poll, 75% said they do not believe Jews have the right to sovereignty in Israel.

Palestinians in Israel have reached the highest echelons in various spheres, even becoming part of a governing coalition for the first time, but the socio-economic gap between them and Jewish Israelis is still significant. Their nationalist and political rights in particular have eroded over the past two decades as Israel’s right-wing nationalism soared. This was accompanied by a host of additional discriminatory legislations to suppress their nationalist and ethnic identification.

Progressively, and partly reactively to Israeli policies, expressions of Palestinian nationalism among Palestinian-Israelis have become more visible, especially since the May 2021 assault on Gaza.  

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They started with challenging and changing the terminology from “Israeli Arabs” to “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” to increased participation in the Nakba commemoration ceremonies, all the way to defiantly normalising the hoisting of the Palestinian flag inside Israel’s Arab towns.

In extreme cases, as happened earlier this year, Palestinian-Israelis became involved in armed attacks against the Israeli authorities.

During the recent Al-Aqsa events, violent clashes between the police and youngsters bearing the Palestinian flag in Israel’s Arab towns of Nazareth and Um al-Fahm became almost routine.

This is why there are now fears that Bennett’s decision to form a “civilian national guard” - to allegedly thwart Palestinian attacks inside Israel - is also directed at Israel’s Palestinians, in anticipation of an internal implosion that could lead to confrontations between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa