‘I Felt Like I was in a Foreign Country for a Moment’: The Battle Against the PLO Flag in Israel

June 7, 2022 by TPS
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Is there something about the Palestinian flag that merits the new law restricting its display in Israel? Israelis on both sides of the question weigh in.

Arab-Israeli students together with Israeli left-wing activists waving the Palestinian flags, attend a rally at Tel Aviv University marking the Nakba anniversary, the “Catastrophe” of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Tel Aviv, May 15, 2022. Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS

“When I see the Palestinian flag being waved at demonstrations,” says Ahmad Abbas, “I feel hope, and belongingness with the Palestinian people of which I am a part.”

Orit Eliyahu feels entirely different. “It makes me cry when I see the Palestinian flag,” she explains, “a flag that symbolizes the attempt to destroy Israel, a flag stained with Jewish blood.”

David Kozlocsky agrees that the flag represents support for the elimination of the state of Israel, even if not everyone who waves it thinks that way.

Abbas, 22, is a Hebrew University law student who grew up in Nahf, an Arab village in Galilee in northern Israel. Eliyahu, 24, and Kozlocksky, 30, are Jewish students, with Eliyahu pursuing a degree in economics at Tel Aviv University and Kozlocksky studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian flag has become a focus of contention in Israeli society, most recently on university campuses.

Israeli law prohibits flying the flag of an enemy state or entity in the country. This has not included the Palestinian flag, originally the PLO flag, because the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) comprise a form of agreement of intent to reach a peace treaty. With growing hostilities since Oslo, which include murderous terrorist attacks against civilians and missile attacks from Gaza, the PA is increasingly regarded as an enemy by a large proportion of Israeli society.

Over recent years, the Palestinian flag has become more prominent on Israel’s streets at demonstrations protesting Israeli government policy and alleged discrimination against Arabs in Israel. This reached a peak in the past two months with loud demonstrations at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Universities with Arab students calling for intifada. Following this, Member of Knesset Eli Cohen (Likud) tabled a new law proposal prohibiting the display of the flag at institutions receiving government funds.

It is already against the law to simultaneously wave the Palestinian flag and incite murder and terrorism; if the amendment passes, simply flying the flag will be illegal. Kozlocsky says that it has been his observation that demonstrations with the flag include a greater degree of incitement to violence than without.

Shai Rosengarten, 28, a Tel Aviv student U of public policy, says that it hurts him to see his fellow students holding the Palestinian flag and inciting violence. He knows other students who are frightened by this. For example, Eliyahu talks about being tense now all the time. She does not feel comfortable anymore on campus or in the dormitories where she lives. “If there are two Arabs walking behind me, I turn around. A kind of conditioning. I’m hyper-vigilant now. I don’t feel at home in my own country.”

Eran Nissan, 31, CEO of Mehazkim, a new NGO working for coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, argues that the issue is not really about the flag, “it’s about essence. It’s not about the symbol, but about the daily struggles and discrimination that the Israeli government has been promoting for decades, attempting to erase the Palestinian identity of Israeli Arabs.”

Sleman Altehe, 21, a student at Sapir College from the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev, expands upon that idea. Opposition to the Palestinian flag means, for him, opposition to his self-identification as a Palestinian Muslim who happens to have Israeli citizenship. Like Abbas, he does not refer to himself as an Israeli Arab.

On the other hand, Yoseph Haddad, 36, CEO of the NGO “Together-Vouch for Each Other” is proud of being an Israeli Arab and his organization seeks to bridge the gap between the Arab sector and Israeli society. He claims there is no discrepancy between being Arab and Israeli: “I can maintain who I am and still be Israeli,” says Haddad. “We have a rich Arab cultural history and today we are part of Israeli society. Those who call themselves Palestinians do not want to be part of Israeli society. But in the end, none of them would want to move to an Arab country.”

Haddad has a problem with the Palestinian flag as it represents Hamas, which is a terror organization, and the PA, which supports terror, paying salaries to those who murdered Jews on a sliding scale according to how many Jews they killed, and more to Israeli Arabs who murder their Jewish fellow citizens.

Abbas says that he knows few Jews who are disturbed by the Palestinian flag at demonstrations. He claims that those expressing distress are playacting. Nissan argues that the bill to prohibit the display of the Palestinian flag is a “cynical maneuver fuelled by xenophobic and racist sentiment” and Abbas, Altehe, and Nissan see the law proposal as part of a political campaign for the next round of elections they expect will be called soon, given the instability of the coalition.

Rosengarten recounts an incident from April 7: “In the morning, there was a demonstration for the release of an imprisoned terrorist, and Arab students who study together with us called out for intifada.” He describes the shock of seeing the threatening looks in the eyes of fellow students carrying huge Palestinian flags. “I felt like I was in a foreign country for a moment.” He adds that later that same day, three Jews were killed in a terror attack in Tel Aviv, two of them Tel Aviv University students.

Haddad says he prays for the day that the Palestinian flag will represent a people and not terror. A sign of that will be when an Israeli flag can be flown in Ramallah. Until then, according to him, there is no legitimacy to the Palestinian flag in Israel.

Report:  Sheri Oz/TPS

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