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The futility of seizing a Palestinian flag

The nationalistic symbolism draped over Shireen Abu Akleh's death doesn't change the political situation, and that is what actually warrants attention
Israel police at the funeral procession of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh at St Joseph hospital in Jerusalem, May 13, 2022. (Jamal Awadl/Flash90)
Israel police at the funeral procession of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh at St Joseph hospital in Jerusalem, May 13, 2022. (Jamal Awadl/Flash90)

Among the disturbing scenes to come out of the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh were images of Israeli police seizing Palestinian flags. Beyond the obvious affront to liberal democratic notions of freedom of speech and expression (including rights protected under Israeli law and court rulings), it also speaks to a failed, yet stubbornly persistent Israeli strategy of trying to completely dilute Palestinian nationalism.

According to Shireen Abu Akleh’s brother, Tony, the Israeli police contacted the family ahead of the funeral and requested that no Palestinian flags be present in the procession. When the police ended up intercepting the funeral in East Jerusalem, they confiscated and took down flags at the Abu Akleh funeral. Concurrently with the Abu Akleh funeral incident, video emerged of one bizarre incident, in which a police officer demands a woman remove her hijab because it shares colors with the Palestinian flag.

Tony Abu Akleh informed the police the event would be a “national funeral,” due to the circumstances surrounding her death (including the possibility, which both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the IDF have separately conceded, that Israeli troops were responsible —which independent reporting from AP and Bellingcat has all but confirmed to be the case). Given Abu Akleh’s high-profile journalistic career as a Palestinian covering the conflict, it is likely that her funeral would have been a national event even if there had been no chance that Israeli forces were involved in her death, or if she had died in a setting completely unrelated to the occupation.

A “national funeral” was clearly not to the liking of some in Israel, and going after the Palestinian flag reflected a dangerous form of wishful thinking in that respect. The police may well have been hoping that Abu Akleh’s life and tragic death could be depoliticized and stripped of nationalistic symbolism. Confronting the political situation means addressing issues more far-reaching than any single death or individual issue.

National symbols have become a target in other contexts as well: Palestinian flags were seized at demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah in the past year and have been around the occupied territories for decades. Last week, Times of Israel reporter Jacob Magid shared a video of Israeli soldiers helping settlers remove a Palestinian flag in Hawara — notably located in West Bank Area B, which is nominally under Palestinian Authority civil control. While Israeli courts have held that the Palestinian flag can be waved freely, this was not always the case. In the decades preceding the Oslo Accords, displaying the Palestinian flag could lead to a harsh penalties, including jailtime, under Israel’s military administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The self-deception about neutering Palestinian nationalism extends beyond the Abu Akleh funeral and the Palestinian flag. It manifests in the tendency among some Israelis to continue to refer to Palestinians simply as “Arabs,” consciously or unconsciously treating them as indistinct members of an Arab nation spanning North Africa and the Middle East rather than a separate identity and a group with a specific relationship to Israel. It crops up in the view that Israel’s existential identity and institutional issues can be resolved in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh rather than in Jerusalem. It is present in musings in Israel and in Washington about “economic peace,” which imagine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as coming down to bank balances and bottom lines rather than history, borders, ethnicity, and religion. And it was visible in an especially ugly way this week, when Likud member of Knesset and former foreign minister Israel Katz admonished students waving Palestinian flags at Israeli universities to “remember our War of Independence and your Nakba [catastrophe].”

This is not the view of every Israeli, of course. On the issue of flags specifically, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev actually intervened last year, demanding police stop seizing Palestinian flags. The appeal of a pliant and apolitical rival is plain to see, but it is not grounded in reality. But the fact that this perception persists as practice among a wide range of figure from politicians down to rank-and-file police officers and soldiers is disturbing. It is a curious and sad thing for Israelis, whose patriotic narrative emphasizes restoration after 2,000 years in exile, to think that taking down a flag can seriously take the steam out of a national movement. Seizing a flag will not put a damper on Palestinian nationalism, but it will increase resentment across the Green Line.

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Read more articles like this on Israel Policy Exchange, Israel Policy Forum’s outlet for expert commentary and analysis on U.S.-Israel relations, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Israeli politics and society, and the regional politics of the Middle East.

About the Author
Evan Gottesman is an advisor at Israel Policy Forum. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, The National Interest, Haaretz, The Diplomat, The Forward, and +972 Magazine. Evan has briefed numerous members of Congress and senior legislative staff on U.S.-Israel relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has been quoted and cited in The Washington Post, USA Today, and VICE News. He is currently a master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. 
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