On Wednesday, the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill introduced by Likud MK Eli Cohen that would bar displays of enemy flags—including the Palestinian flag—at any institution that accepts state funding, including universities. This comes on the heels of Jerusalem police confiscating Palestinian flags during Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral in May, videos of IDF soldiers taking down flags in Palestinian towns in the West Bank, and the Jerusalem Day flag march on Sunday that involved tens of thousands of Israeli Jews waving flags on a route through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall. The tension and symbolism around flags is at a boiling point, and it points to the continuing difficulty of Israeli strength to overcome Israeli insecurity.

The Jerusalem Day flag march at Damascus gate on May 30, 2022 by Shachar Agus, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Nationalism is one of the most powerful political and ideological forces that exists, so it is no surprise that flags are potent symbols. In the Israeli and Palestinian cases, they are serving similar functions. The resonance around the Jerusalem Day flag march is twofold, both to demonstrate pride and patriotism surrounding Israel’s victories and the nearly unparalleled achievements of political Zionism in such a short historical time period and to demonstrate resilience against anyone who thinks that Israel is going away. These are natural and defensible displays for Israelis, though they also sit alongside the indefensible aspect of the march that prioritizes tearing down Palestinian nationalism in the most provocative way possible, designed to remind Palestinians that they are powerless as death threats are hurled at them in the middle of their neighborhoods.

The Palestinian flag communicates the same basic ideas for Palestinians, which is why it is ubiquitous during celebrations and also during tragedies. Palestinians have as much national pride as Israelis, and waving the Palestinian flag is a way of expressing it, particularly when it is one of the only national symbols that Palestinians have in the absence of statehood. And it is the absence of statehood and the lived reality of occupation that makes the Palestinian flag even more important as a symbol of resilience and a demonstration that the millions of Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens are not going to accept being permanent second-class residents of the land in which they live, destined for autonomy but not sovereignty. It is why the Palestinian flag turns into a critical component during tragedies such as Abu Akleh’s funeral, and why Israeli demands to have these events denationalized or depoliticized misunderstand that the flag and Palestinian nationalism cannot be untangled from Palestinian personal tragedy that involves Israelis. And as with some Israeli flag displays, there are indefensible aspects that sit alongside defensible ones, with rallies or protests that veer from Palestinian nationalism into calls for Israel’s destruction or pushing the Jews into the sea.

The funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh

But despite the similar functions that celebrating the flag serves on both sides, there is one big difference. Israel has a state and is operating from a position of power, and Palestinians do not have a state and are operating from a position of weakness. That structural imbalance should in theory make Israelis less sensitive to the symbolic aspects of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, but it doesn’t. The fact of Israel’s existence and Israel’s strength—not only relative to the Palestinians but in absolute terms—has not appreciably lessened Israelis’ insecurities, and Palestinian flags are still treated in many instances as physical threats that somehow have the ability to snuff out Zionism or Israel’s existence.

Cohen’s bill to make it illegal to display a Palestinian flag in universities is a response to a rally that took place last week at Ben Gurion University and was organized after students were not allowed to hold one on Nakba Day. Students, who according to reports were mostly Arab Israeli but included some Israeli Jews as well, waved Palestinian flags and sang Palestinian songs and some held up peace signs. The response from Israeli politicians was overwhelmingly negative. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman called for Ben Gurion’s state funding to be cut off, the mayor of Beersheva said that the rally crossed a red line, New Hope MK Sharon Haskell deemed any display of a Palestinian flag to be incitement, and the Likud issued a statement linking the appearance of Palestinian flags at this rally to the government’s alleged inability to fight terrorism or preserve Zionism. Cohen’s bill, despite being one introduced by the opposition, was granted a seal of approval by the government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which said that coalition MKs were free to vote their conscience rather than maintain the ordinary coalition discipline that would dictate voting against it, and Yamina, New Hope, and Yisrael Beiteinu all voted for it yesterday.

A Nakba Day rally in Ramallah, 2011 by Heinrich Böll Foundation Palestine & Jordan, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

If all of this seems like an extreme overreaction to a national flag, that’s because it is. If waving a flag threatens Israel’s existence, then not only is Israel in far bigger trouble than anyone understands, but Zionism itself has failed. The success of Israel is not only in its establishment, but in the fact that it has become a military, economic, and cultural powerhouse. Protestors waving Palestinian flags and mourners displaying them at funerals does not threaten Israel’s sovereignty or security in any tangible way, and to think otherwise betrays a deep and unwarranted sense of insecurity about Israel’s durability and legitimacy. Palestinians are subject to Israeli control in ways large and small and don’t have many outlets for expressing their nationalism or symbolically demonstrating their freedom; honing in on flags says far more about Israeli predilections than it does about Palestinian ones. The fact that Israel is now worried about Palestinian flags when twenty years ago Israel was worried about Palestinians with suicide vests is itself a demonstration of how much better Israel’s position is, and how many inside of Israel are struggling with distinguishing between symbols of resistance that are actually violent threats and those that are not. 

The more that Israel seeks to criminalize the idea of Palestinian nationalism rather than focusing on preventing its violent manifestations, the more difficult it will become. The Palestinian flag is a display of ideology and emotion, and treating it like a weapon will make it more potent and more popular a symbol. There was a particular irony at work this week with Israeli arguments that marching through the Old City with Israeli flags is nothing but a demonstration of legitimate Israeli pride and should not be construed in any way as incitement or threatening toward Palestinians, while at the same time insisting on multiple fronts that Palestinian flags are inherently illegitimate and should be construed as incitement and threats toward Israelis. The truth is that national flags are never inherent threats, but it is all about how they are deployed. There is a way to have the Jerusalem Day flag march be about pride in Israel and Israeli sovereignty in its capital, and there is a way to have it be about rubbing Palestinian noses in their defeat. There is a way to fly Palestinian flags as an expression of hopes for independence and sovereignty, and there is a way to do it as a threatening message to Israelis about their safety and security. It is a mistake for Israel to lose sight of this fact, along with the larger dynamic at work in which making Palestinian nationalism a crime will not kill it but only make it stronger.