The long history of Israel’s war on the Palestinian flag

Barak Mayer

+972 Magazine  /  May 29, 2023

From terror threat to peace hopes, Israeli views of the Palestinian flag have undergone many shifts over the decades. Now, attempts to outlaw it are back.

Uri Avnery, the late left-wing Israeli journalist, activist, and parliamentarian, was well ahead of his time. In a photo published in his iconoclastic weekly newspaper, HaOlam HaZeh (This World), from 1968 — just a year after the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, began — Avnery can be seen displaying the Palestinian flag during a speech advocating for the end of Israeli military rule over the occupied territories.

In those days, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis would have had trouble even recognizing the Palestinian flag. But as Avnery spoke, he pulled out the flag and declared, in language that today seems naïve, perhaps even patronizing: “We will take this flag out of the hands of our enemies and put it in the hands of the Palestinians who are ready for peace. Instead of a grenade — a handshake!” 

In the half century since, Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinian flag have undergone a series of developments, though many still see it as a symbol of “terrorism.” Today, it is under renewed attack by far-right MKs and their constituents, who seek not only to remove the flag from any public display, but to outlaw it entirely.

There are currently 11 bills pending approval in the Knesset to ban the Palestinian flag in various forms. This comes in the wake of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s directive at the start of this year ordering police to crack down on the flying of the flag in public spaces, which provided the pretext for a recent police raid on the offices of the Palestinian-Jewish Hadash party in Nazareth to confiscate a flag raised on the building. But history shows us that such attempts to quash Palestinian identity and symbols never work; if anything, they backfire.

Rise of nationalism 

The Palestinian flag was first flown around a century ago as a symbol of pan-Arabism. The design comes from the flag of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Ottoman Empire, and the flag of the Hejaz Kingdom that was born as a result of that rebellion; Arab nationalists have been using it in Palestine ever since.

On November 26, 1928, a reporter for Haaretz, under the pen name “Gog and Magog” (biblical characters who represent Armageddon), wrote: “I see that the Arab [Palestinian] youth in the Land of Israel, who are getting organized now, are choosing a flag for themselves, the colors of which are the colors of the general Arab [Palestinian] flag: white, green, red, and black.” The writer laments: “It is worth noting that, although the colors of the Zionist flag have been determined for decades, its design has not yet been determined, and everyone makes their own flag … If the flag is a symbol, then it is appropriate to determine its final shape once and for all.”

Early versions of the Palestinian flag reflect the search for a common symbol uniting all Palestinians. In a photograph, which was likely taken in the late 1920s or early ’30s, one can see Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, displaying a flag similar to the current Palestinian flag, but with the Dome of the Rock in its center.

A few years later, during the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, militant Palestinian groups used different versions of the flag, all of which were based on the original design with the addition of different inscriptions and symbols. In one photograph from 1938, a group of Palestinian rebels is seen waving the black, white, and green flag with the red triangle, while inside the triangle there is a drawing of a cross combined with a crescent — a popular symbol in those days meant to express national unity across religious identities.

Palestinian nationalism was flourishing at the time, and when the legendary Alhambra cinema opened in Jaffa in 1937, the original Palestinian flag was permanently placed on its roof (the building has since been converted into a Scientology Center). In 1948, after the establishment of the short-lived “All-Palestine Government” — which operated under Egyptian auspices and partially controlled the Gaza Strip for about a decade — the Palestinian flag was chosen to represent the new political entity. That flag, with three stripes of black, white, and green, cut through with a red triangle, is now known as the flag of Palestine. 

All of this was but a prelude to the major breakthrough of the flag, and of Palestinian nationalism in general, into global consciousness, when it was adopted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) after it was founded in 1964.

Ever since the establishment of the State of Israel, its various arms have sought to suppress every demonstration of Palestinian nationalism. It started in areas within the Green Line, and after 1967 spread to the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. The military regime had zero tolerance for any public display of nationalism, and waving the Palestinian flag was a serious offense that could be punished with prison time. Even minors as young as 10 years old were not immune to the far reach of military law and were occasionally sent to prison for waving the forbidden flag.

If the occupation wrought further oppression on Palestinians, it also created an opening for Palestinian unity and national awakening and, as such, brought their political symbols to the fore. After 19 years of forced separation between Palestinians in Israel and those in the West Bank and Gaza, the new territorial conquests renewed direct ties between the sides. The unified national consciousness continued to grow, even in the face of Israeli suppression of varying brutality, like dispersing political demonstrations and gatherings, arresting activists, confiscating printed material, and a whole host of other measures.

Moreover, the continuous discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel (most of whom lived under military rule until 1966) was a double-edged sword for those who sought to sunder Palestinian unity. Nationalist sentiment was now at a simmer within the Green Line as well, and boiled over in the Galilee on Land Day, in 1976, after the widespread government expropriation of land in the area’s villages.

The increasing visibility of Palestinian nationalism within the state, one manifestation of which was the act of waving the flag, frightened the Israeli establishment, which essentially perceived such sentiments as an existential threat. It was in this context that, twelve years after presenting the flag at the HaOlam HaZeh conference, Uri Avnery found himself attempting, on the floor of the Knesset, to stop the legal efforts to ban the flag.

‘A declaration of war’ 

In July 1980, Shmuel Tamir, the justice minister from the Likud party, introduced an “Amendment to the Terrorism Prevention Ordinance,” also known as the “PLO Law,” for which he had dusted off an old administrative law from the earliest days of the state. That law, originally passed in 1948 after the Zionist paramilitary group Lehi assassinated Folke Bernadotte — a Swedish diplomat tasked by the UN with mediating the Arab-Israeli war –– was originally passed to block the activity of Lehi and the Irgun, another terrorist group that was eventually folded into the Israeli military. However, the military hardly ever applied the law enforcement mechanisms it put in place following the passage of the legislation.

Tamir presented his amendment as a way to “liberalize” the law by transferring its enforcement from the purview of the military to the police and the justice system. But the crucial change came in what he proposed adding to the law. His amendment stated that someone could be convicted of supporting a terrorist organization for: “Committing an act in which there is clear identification with a terrorist organization or sympathy with one, waving a flag as symbolic presentation or a slogan, or reciting an anthem or a slogan, or [committing] any similarly overt act that clearly demonstrates such identification or sympathy, and in a public place in such a manner that people in that place can see or hear such identification or sympathy.”

The debates over the amendment during the plenary session were tumultuous. The majority of MKs — among whom were right-wing members of the Likud, Labor Zionists from Alignment [the predecessor to today’s Labor Party], and representatives of smaller parties ­­— wholeheartedly supported the bill, claiming that it was a necessary tool in their efforts to fight Palestinian terrorism. The same majority in the Knesset also tended to ignore those claiming that the flag represented all Palestinians, and that it was not solely the flag of the PLO.

In proposing the bill, Tamir explained: “When identification with terrorist organizations, which seek to undermine the very existence of the state, is publicly manifest in the waving of flags, distributing signs, reciting slogans, anthems, and the like, we must find a solution to situations that the legislators did not, and did not have to, take into account in 1948.”

Likud MK Dov Shilansky gave a particularly impassioned speech from the right side of the political map, arguing that the law was necessary in order to stop “the terror by bloodthirsty animals” that “aren’t hungry for any sort of food … but whose thirst for Jewish blood can never be satiated.” Alignment’s Moshe Shahal, too, justified the law, arguing: “No freedom-seeking person can claim that we don’t need to wage a boycott war against terrorist organizations of all kinds.”

On the other side was a small but stubborn minority of MKs opposed to the law, most of whom were leftist Jews or Palestinians. Uri Avnery pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of the party in power, explaining that Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon had requested him to facilitate a meeting between himself and the head of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, and was therefore not entirely opposed to the existence of the PLO. Shlomo Hillel, of the Alignment, scolded Avnery: “That was a secret.”

Tawfiq Ziad, a Palestinian MK from the Israeli Communist Party, also gave a fiery speech against the law, arguing: “It is a declaration of war against democracy, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. As such, it is a fascist law. It is also a declaration of war against the forces of peace and democracy in the land and on everyone who takes a rational approach to the Palestinian problem and to the issue of war and peace in the Middle East. It is a declaration of war against everyone who recognizes the very existence of the Arab Palestinian nation as represented by the PLO.”

Later, Ziad added: “According to this law, our entire [Palestinian] nation is guilty. We reject this. Neither this law nor similar laws can be allowed to terrorize our people and discourage us from our struggle. This law is intended to increase the suppression of Arab [Palestinian] citizens. It is intended to suppress our struggle against official policy in general and in favor of equal national rights. This is the sword that hangs above the heads of half a million Arab [Palestinian] citizens of the state … The goal of this law is to stamp out our national identity, because we are a part of the Arab Palestinian nation.”

Moshe Amar, a Likudnik, expressed surprising opposition to the proposed law, claiming that the bill was drafted too hastily and as such its wording was confusing, which would make it difficult to enforce. But he also regarded the law as fundamentally wrongheaded: “The purpose of this bill is political, it’s more about a show of force than it is about legal, criminal, or punitive [issues]. If we view it as a political show of force, it becomes clear that this bill has no place in our law books and should be sent back.” 

Despite the stormy debate, the vote itself was decisive. A clear majority of MKs supported the bill in its second and third readings, with 45 in favor and only 12 against.

And so, in 1980, with Israel officially viewing the flag as a symbol of the PLO, and having designated the PLO as a terrorist organization (although, officially, the group was only added to the Defense Ministry’s list of terrorist organizations in 1986), the ban on the Palestinian flag within the Green Line was implemented; waving the flag, like other forms of political expression, was already banned in Gaza and the West Bank.

‘PLO flag’ 

Over the following years, when Palestinian nationalism went through an unprecedented rise, culminating in the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987, Israel in turn escalated its suppression of the flag — sometimes to absurd and tragic levels.

Israeli forces violently dispersed demonstrations of thousands in which only one or two flags were being waved. Soldiers climbed electricity poles to take flags down (or sent a Palestinian to do so in their place, causing some of them to be electrocuted). They arrested people carrying the flag, confiscated objects on which the flag was drawn, and more. On one occasion, a Palestinian student was arrested for embroidering a shirt with the flag; on another, someone was arrested and accused of incitement after flying a kite with the national colors. After soldiers found a dress in the national colors in a Palestinian woman’s home, they forced her to wear it — and then arrested her for doing so.

Most Israeli mainstream media outlets delegitimized the flag, often by referring to it as the “PLO flag” — a term based on the claim that it was not the flag of the Palestinian nation but only that of the organization. Shlomo Kor, the deputy chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which owned the only television channel in Israel at the time, similarly demanded that his reporters stop using the phrase “Palestinian flag” and refer to it only as the “PLO flag.”

Then, as today, most people on the Zionist left joined in with the consensus that waving the Palestinian flag was taboo. When the flag was occasionally flown during left-wing demonstrations organized by the Israeli anti-occupation group Peace Now, fellow protesters would remove the flag themselves, or at least support its removal by police. Following one such demonstration in March 1982, after which Prime Minister Menachem Begin condemned the waving of the flag (which he, too, referred to as the “PLO flag”), the organization put out a clarification: “It cannot be that Peace Now will raise any flag other than the Israeli flag.” Those who did so were labeled “hitchhikers.”

In Palestinian communities within the Green Line, the flag occasionally caused bitter disputes and internal struggles. Some Palestinian citizens, who wanted to continue their efforts to integrate into Israeli society without “making waves,” were strongly opposed to using the flag (sometimes for practical reasons, such as to avoid police intervention or budget cuts by the state). Others demanded that they be allowed to wave the flag openly and proudly, both as a tool of national identification and as a means of defying the discriminatory Israeli authorities.

Regardless of these factional disputes, one thing was clear: as Israeli suppression intensified, so too did the symbolic power of the flag in the Palestinian struggle against occupation and discrimination.

In the early 1990s, however, as Israel’s political contact with the PLO grew, the war on the Palestinian flag waned. In 1993, as part of the Oslo negotiations, the Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Rabin, signed an agreement of mutual recognition with Arafat. Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and committed to undo its designation of the group as a terrorist organization (it never actually did so; the PLO remains on the Defense Ministry’s list). Furthermore, Oslo II, which was signed in 1995, even referred to “the Palestinian flag” — not “the PLO flag” — thereby quietly acknowledging a shift in Israel’s assessment of the flag and its meaning.

This change can be seen in an exchange of letters from 1994 between Meshulam Noi, an Israeli citizen living in Ramat Gan, and Naomi Chazan, an MK from Meretz and part of Rabin’s coalition. In his letter to Chazan, Noi wrote that since signing Oslo and recognizing the PLO, even though it was still considered a terrorist organization, flying the Palestinian flag had been legalized, while the flags of far-right groups like Kach and Kahane Chai were quickly removed by concerned security forces when they were flown in public.

In her reply, Chazan begins by stating that “we’re not talking about PLO flags, but rather the Palestinian flag,” before continuing: “There is a clear and understandable difference between the government’s reference to a political organization with which it is currently negotiating, and a terrorist and racist group set on sabotaging the peace process.”

As an aside, Chazan added a hint that the state still treated the PLO more harshly than the far right: “If [the government] was treating Kach and Kahane Chai activists like it treats PLO activists, their situation would be far worse.”

In the years and decades that followed, the peace process crumbled, destroyed by a series of political disasters: Rabin’s assassination; Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister; Israel’s continued oppressive tactics in the occupied territories; the violent Second Intifada; settlement expansion; the separation wall; the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and ensuing siege of the strip; and the internecine Palestinian battles for control.

And yet, some of the Oslo commitments remained intact. The Palestinian Authority still exists, even if it is slowly dying, and its security cooperation with Israel — despite frequent threats from the PA to pull the plug — is still in place, and seems to be preventing, or, rather delaying, deeper unrest in the West Bank.

In parallel with the death of the peace process, the last two decades have also seen a regression in Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinian flag. It has again become a forbidden and dangerous symbol of terror, even of antisemitism. Yet again, those who wave it are arrested by the police, who beat them and confiscate their flags. Last year, during the funeral for the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Israeli security forces nearly caused her coffin to fall to the ground when they beat the pallbearers for raising Palestinian flags.

Israelis have also shifted decisively to the right, and politicians denounce the Palestinian flag with increasing vitriol. Despite the continued cooperation between Israel and the PA, the flag is once again referred to as the “PLO flag,” and those waving it are deemed terrorists.

But two trends exist simultaneously. The Israeli public, including much of the Zionist left, regards the Palestinian flag with disgust, but those on the far left, who have become radicalized in recent years, welcome the flag in the face of the attempts to ban it. Even activists from Peace Now, which previously denounced the flag and remains a Zionist organization, were recently seen holding signs emblazoned with both the Israeli and the Palestinian flags. The symbol of the joint flags — which Uri Avnery’s movement, Gush Shalom, used for decades — has now reached the old peace movement.

Support across the Zionist spectrum 

Since the 1990s, various legal bodies have ruled that there is no explicit legal ban on flying the flag, though some have allowed for its confiscation in certain cases, like when there is concern that it will “disturb the peace” or if the flag is seen as an attempt to “identify with a terrorist organization” (and not with Palestinians or the PA). Nonetheless, in recent years, there have been numerous attempts to legislate bans on waving the Palestinian flag. In 2016, the “Law on Combating Terror” (or “Anti-Terror Law”), which replaced the old Ordinance, stated, like the 1980 PLO Law, that “one who commits an act of identification with a terrorist organization, including by publishing praise, support, or sympathy, waving a flag, or displaying, playing, or publishing a slogan or anthem, any one of these is punishable by three years in prison.”

In 2021, May Golan, a Likud MK with a reputation for incitement, proposed an amendment to the penal code that would “prohibit waving the flag of a hostile entity.” The law came up for debate on the Knesset floor in February 2022, when the Likud was in the opposition, and when it was engaged in a kind of war of attrition with the coalition, with each side refusing to cooperate with the other, with almost no regard for the actual content of the law; the Knesset voted to remove the bill from the agenda.

A few months later, Likud MK Eli Cohen — who is now the foreign affairs minister — submitted his own bill, which arrived in the wake of attempts to wave Palestinian flags during demonstrations at universities. The bill sought to establish “a prohibition on waving the flag of an enemy state or of the PA at entities funded or supported by the state.” This is almost certainly the first time a bill referred to the specific flag in question, calling it the flag of the PA so as to avoid the legislative obstacles that would arise were it called the “PLO flag,” since Israel still recognizes the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

In contrast with Golan’s bill, Cohen’s proposal gained broad support: though he and his party were in the opposition at the time, the Bennett-Lapid “government of change” allowed its members to support the bill during its preliminary vote. Many coalition MKs refrained from attending the vote, but some chose to vote in favor. While this bill was frozen before reaching its first Knesset reading, other bills have come in its place. One of them, which made headlines recently and is now in the early stages of legislation, was put forth by MK Limor Son Har-Malech, from the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, and one of its goals, like Cohen’s bill, is to prohibit the waving of Palestinian flags in Israeli universities.

According to the proposed law, a student who flies a “flag of an enemy state, a terrorist organization or the Palestinian Authority,” will be suspended by the educational institution “for a period not less than 30 days,” and should they commit a repeat offense, they will be expelled permanently and denied the right to receive an academic degree in Israel, or to have an academic degree recognized outside of Israel for a period of five years.”

Israeli university heads have condemned the law, alleging that if it passes, it would trigger a “wave of academic boycotts of Israeli institutions all around the world.” Ariel Porat, the president of Tel Aviv University, said he would not enforce the law’s clause mandating the permanent expulsion of students who wave the Palestinian flag.

And yet, the efforts for an all-out ban persist. For Eliyahu Revivo, a Likud MK, the ban on flying the flag only in certain areas like universities is insufficient, so he proposed, alongside some of his colleagues, another bill. Like its predecessor, it refers specifically to flying the flag of the PA (in addition to the flags of enemy states and terrorist organizations). In a radio interview, Revivo said: “I will make sure that the legislative process on banning the PLO flag will be completed — whoever hangs a flag will be imprisoned for a year and fined.” The law is expected to be debated on the Knesset floor soon.

In the meantime, Golan’s earlier proposal was revived by MKs Almog Cohen and Keti Shitrit of Otzma Yehudit and Likud, respectively. According to the bill, it will be forbidden to wave the flag of any country, entity, or body that does not have warm relations with Israel. What exactly does “warm relations” mean? “Those that recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” This bill is also currently being considered by the Knesset. Another bill, which has the support of multiple MKs from Religious Zionism, is simply entitled “Bill to Prohibit Waving the PA Flag,” and it proposes, among other things, that the punishment for waving the Palestinian flag will be “three years in prison or a fine of at least NIS 5,000” (around $1,350).

In total, no less than 15 similar bills have been placed on the Knesset table in the last two years, designed to prevent the waving of the Palestinian flag. Some of the proposals are identical to others, and some of them are signed by members of the Knesset opposition, including from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

These competing efforts to ban the flag by the Israeli far right enjoy broad support from politicians across the Zionist spectrum. Perhaps more disturbingly, the Israeli protest movement that has mobilized in opposition to the judicial reform — and marches “in favor of democracy” — has been reluctant to embrace Palestinians, and there have been numerous instances of violence against protesters waving Palestinian flags. At a time of rising violence and repression, and with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ordering police, with no legal basis, to confiscate Palestinian flags, a formal, sweeping ban on the flag seems inevitable. It is only a matter of time.

Barak Mayer is a photographer, researcher, and writer based in Tel Aviv