Israel accused of trying to ‘topple’ the Palestinian Authority – as it bans public waving of Palestinian flag

Itamar Ben-Gvir (Atef Safadi - AP)

Bel Trew

The Independent  /  January 10, 2023

In recent days, Israel has withheld millions of dollars of Palestinian tax revenues and stripped Palestinian officials of VIP privileges. Now, the country’s firebrand security minister has banned public displays of the Palestinian flag.

Israel’s new far-right government has been accused of trying to “topple” the recognized Palestinian Authority after it announced a slew of new sanctions and banned the waving of Palestinian flags in public.

In recent days, Israel has withheld millions of dollars of Palestinian tax revenues, stripped Palestinian officials of VIP privileges and broken up a meeting of Palestinian parents discussing their children’s education. Late on Sunday, Israel’s firebrand security minister banned public displays of the Palestinian flag. It has ignited further concerns about the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which is deemed the most religious and hardline cabinet in Israeli history.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said the Israeli measures came in response to a Palestinian appeal for United Nations for help, and are “aimed at toppling the authority and pushing it to the brink financially and institutionally”. 

“We consider these measures a new war against the Palestinian people, their capabilities and funds, and a war against the national authority, its survival and its achievements,” Mr Shtayyeh said during his weekly cabinet meeting. Late on Sunday, Israel’s security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir – a far-right firebrand who assumed office last month – announced the controversial step to ban Palestinian flag-waving.

Mr Shtayyeh said the move blocked “even the most non-violent ways of fighting the occupation”. Ahmad Aldeek, assistant to the Palestinian foreign minister, said: “The Israeli government is waging an open war on the symbols and components of the State of Palestine … This increases our insistence in pursuing the Israeli government and putting it on trial in all international forums”.

Mr Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter: “Today I directed the Israel police to enforce the prohibition of flying any [Palestinian Liberation Organization] flag that shows identification with a terrorist organization from the public sphere and to stop any incitement against the State of Israel.”

“We will fight terrorism and the encouragement of terrorism with all our might,” he added.

Flying the Palestinian flag is not illegal in Israel. Israel media reported that officers were unsure if they had the legal framework to enforce the order.

The Israeli police did not directly comment on the minister’s blanket flag ban but told The Independent: “The decision to remove a flag is based on various factors, including the nature of the flag, the circumstances under which it was hoisted, and any actions taken in conjunction with its display. These factors are considered in light of public safety and the potential for criminal offences, such as supporting a terrorist organization.”

They added: “After a thorough review, the police will determine the appropriate course of action in a given incident relative to the situation and at times, this may be in consultation with other security officials.”

Mr Netanyahu, who was sworn in as prime minister for the sixth time in December, defended the move, telling his cabinet on Sunday that the measures were aimed at what he called “an extreme anti-Israel” step at the United Nations.

The Palestinians have recently pushed the UN’s highest judicial body to give its opinion on Israel’s 55-year military occupation of the West Bank.

We have the right to complain and tell the world we are in pain

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh

Since then, Mr Netanyahu’s government has withheld nearly $40m in Palestinian tax revenues and said it will transfer the money to victims of Palestinian militant attacks. It has also stripped Palestinian officials of VIP privileges and even broke up a meeting of Palestinian parents discussing their children’s education, claiming it was unlawfully funded by the Palestinian Authority.

The flag is just the latest move, and came shortly after Mr Ben-Gvir, who heads up the ultranationalist far-right Otzma Yehudit, drew widespread international condemnation by visiting Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site last week.

Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said that while flying the flag is not criminalized under Israeli law a 2014 ordinance by an Israeli deputy attorney general meant “there is no absolute immunity for raising the flag” as the police have the right to confiscate them if it results in disruption of public order or breach of peace, or is done in support of terrorism.

This newest order, however, goes one step further, falsely implying that any public display of the Palestinian flag is itself such a disruption, the group said.

“This gives the police unfettered discretion to ban the waving of the Palestinian flag under all circumstances,” it added.

In practice, Palestinian analysts say Israeli police regularly arrest people for flag-waving.

“This is not a new development – this has been a long time coming,” Yara Harawi, a writer and senior policy analyst for Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka added.

“I think this [new order] will extend the powers of the police and border police to go after anyone. This new government will open the door for a crueler regime in the West Bank,” she told The Independent.

“It is worrying regarding the increase in day-to-day violence that they will face across the board.”

Israeli rights group B’Tselem said on Sunday that 2022 was the deadliest for Palestinians since 2004, reporting that 146 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank, including five women and 34 children, the youngest just 12 years old.

The United Nations said last month that more Palestinians were killed in the West Bank in 2022 since they began recording fatalities in 2005, blaming the bloodshed on Israel’s excessive use of force.

B’TSelem said that 32 Palestinians had also been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza.

Israel once considered the Palestinian flag that of a militant group akin to Hamas or Shiite Hezbollah. But after Israel and the Palestinians signed a series of interim peace agreements known as the Oslo Accords, the flag was recognized as that of the Palestinian Authority, which was created to administer Gaza and parts of the occupied West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu returned as prime minister in late December, forging the country’s most religious and hardline government in history by allying his Likud party to ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies.

One of the first steps he took was to retroactively legalize outposts in occupied West Bank, which are all illegal under international law.

Bel Trew is International Correspondent for The Independent based in Beirut