How Israel Used Flags to Assert Its Rule Over the Palestinians
In November 1968, a year and a half after Israel’s conquest of the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War, an 18-year-old high-school student named Faiz, who lived in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood, hung a Palestinian flag on the wall of his school and then ran off. Afterward, about 60 students from the school went outside to demonstrate against the occupiers. Reporting the event, a Shin Bet security service coordinator noted, “When the army appeared… the students ran off and the army succeeded in apprehending a number of students who demonstrated.”
In his request to the Israel Police to investigate the event, the Shin Bet coordinator added a few comments: “Faiz is a terrible student. The flag Faiz hung on the wall is handmade. It’s not known whether someone sent Faiz to hang the flag.”
The police lost no time in launching an investigation. Faiz and another student were taken into custody, as was the school’s superintendent – who was released after three weeks, when it turned out that he had been the one who had taken the flag down.
The Shin Bet archives are closed to the public (the document quoted above is from the police archives), so we don’t know how this episode ended. What is known is that it was not the only incident attesting to the fact that the Israeli security forces always attached inordinate importance to flags and their appearance in the public space, both within the Green Line (sovereign Israel) and on the Palestinian side as well.
Indeed, reports about flags – whether Palestinian and Israeli – turn up persistently in literature of the period and in historical documentation in Israel. In 1974, for example, Israel Defense Forces Central Command reported on four instances of sabotage in a West Bank Palestinian village, consisting of the repeated disconnecting of a telephone line and the hoisting in its place of “a Palestinian flag that was drawn on a piece of notebook paper.” For the Israeli authorities, it’s apparent that the attitude toward the display of flags was something of a barometer for measuring the depth of Israel’s control over the Palestinians as a whole.
Whereas the appearance of the Palestinian flag (whose origins date back to the time of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire a century ago) was an indication of the ineffectiveness of Israeli control, the hoisting of Israeli flags – and the more the better – reflected awkward attempts by the authorities to demonstrate the opposite of that. By rigorously seeing to the presence of Israeli flags in the Palestinian public space in Israel, the occupier sought to embed Israeli rule and ingrain it in the visual realm, and thus remind the Palestinians who was running the show. For this reason, considerable resources were invested, over the long years (1948-1966) of military rule over Israel’s Arab citizens, in order to carry out observation, surveillance and documentation of the Palestinian citizens who celebrated Independence Day, of those who raised the Israeli flag and those who were against doing so.
In April 1950, ahead of Israel’s second Independence Day, military administration headquarters sent a message to the military governors instructing them to underscore the importance of the event. “It is of special interest to us that this year, Independence Day is also celebrated and evident among the Arab population in the administered territories,” meaning Arab society within Israel, the governors were told. To that end, it noted several steps that were to be taken in the Arab communities. “The village mukhtar and dignitaries must ensure that flags are hoisted and that the state emblems are hung on all public and [other] important buildings in the village.”
In addition, schools were to hold festive events and conduct talks about Independence Day, and in the villages, “special prayers for the well-being of the state and the president” were to be recited that day. The movie theaters in Nazareth and Acre were instructed to screen “special films,” at no charge to the audience.
The authorities in the field – the police and the military governors – saw to it that the spirit of the holiday was maintained. Each year, in the lead-up to Independence Day and on the day itself, they reported on the events of the holiday and about what was termed the “state of mind” among Israel’s Palestinian inhabitants. In an April 1953 report, for example, the military governor of the Negev, Basil Herman, detailed the main events surrounding the festive reception that was conducted for the Arab public in the military administration building to mark the country’s fifth Independence Day.
“Exit permit [requirements] were not strictly observed that day,” the governor reported, referring to the travel authorizations that Israel’s Arab population had to obtain in order to leave their place of residence during the period of military government. The governor added that, contrary to earlier fears, the representatives of the Bedouin community had not been affected by the drought that occurred year and had not expressed a hostile attitude toward the government during the celebrations. On the contrary: “All the speakers praised the government and the [military] administration.”
A report by military government headquarters in Acre about holiday events in the village of Yasif in May 1958 was also enormously effusive about the local celebrations. “The village’s [playing] field was festooned with national flags, colorful ribbons, abundant electric light that was provided by a special generator brought to the site for that purpose, a stage decorated with rugs, flags and pictures of the state’s public personalities and Zionist leaders,” the district commander noted, and summed up, “The technical arrangements, including comfortable places for the audience to sit, were not inferior, in my opinion, to the arrangements in a Jewish community.”
A perusal of the rest of the report makes it clear that the celebrations took place in spite of the objections of the local governing council, whose members decided unanimously to boycott the Independence Day events, per the report, “for Arab nationalist reasons.”
Over the years, numerous disputes occurred in connection with the Israeli flag, which the police addressed with profound seriousness. On Independence Day in 1962, for example, unknown persons in the village of Tira removed “two flags from over the high school, one flag from over the Histadrut [labor federation] building… two flags from the local council building, while about 15 flags were taken down from the electric pole on the main street.”
By rigorously seeing to the presence of Israeli flags in the Palestinian public space in Israel, the occupier sought to embed Israeli rule and ingrain it in the visual realm, and thus remind the Palestinians who was running the show.
Police rushed to the site, but weren’t able to find the flag vandals. With the aid of the Shin Bet, possible suspects were found and “brought before a magistrate’s court judge in Netanya and taken into custody for 15 days.” In the wake of the investigation, an 11-year-old boy was detained, “who confessed, following which we [the police] arrived at a clear picture” about the removal of the flags, which had also been defaced.
After 1967, the policy that had required Israeli flags to be flown in Arab communities within Israel during the state’s first two decades of existence, evolved into a restriction on display of the Palestinian flag in the territories. Thus, one of the first steps taken by Israel after the conquest of the territories was to declare a ban on undesirable symbols. Article 5 of the 1967 Military Order 101 on the “Prohibition of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda Actions” (which was, in fact, a ban on all political activity in the recently conquered territories) states: “It is forbidden to hold, wave, display or affix flags or political symbols, except in accordance with a permit of the military commander.” No such permit was ever issued, of course.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, asked shortly afterward in the Knesset about the ban on displaying the Palestinian flag, explained the logic of the policy. “I assume that raising a flag in a public place means that the flag is meant to symbolize the rule in that place… The government of Israel believes that in the West Bank, the rule is that of the government of Israel.”
It wasn’t only a symbolic matter. Shlomo Gazit, the coordinator of government policy in the territories in the first seven years after their conquest, noted in his book “The Carrot and the Stick: Israel’s Policy in Judaea and Samaria, 1967-68,” that Israel aspired to prevent the residents of the territories from participating in shaping the area’s political future. The military government in the territories, he added, was adept at doing damage to the business and property of anyone there who displayed “nationalist” inclinations. Under the military government, the Palestinian flag was seen as an expression of collective Palestinian identity, and therefore must not be flown.
Display of the Palestinian flag instigated a furor not only in the occupied territories but also within Israel for many years. In this sense, the recent comments by both coalition and opposition members about the appearance of Palestinian flags at demonstrations against the judicial overhaul currently underway are merely upgrades of reactions that were voiced across decades. In the huge demonstration organized by Peace Now in March 1982, to mark the third anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, when a Palestinian flag was raised by a left-wing demonstrator, it was a number of left-wing activists who got rid of the symbol. Tzali Reshef, a founder of Peace Now, observed in his 1996 book about the movement, that waving the flag diverted attention from the large-scale demonstration and served the right wing by presenting all the demonstrators as extremists. “The extremist image clung to us, and all we could do was try to reduce the damage,” he explained.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin devoted the first cabinet meeting after the demonstration to deriding the “rotten fruit” that was Peace Now. The distance between “rotten fruit” and the remarks of a number of currently serving cabinet ministers is not great.
It wasn’t only among Jews that the issue of raising the Palestinian flag stirred a lively debate. In the second half of the 1980s, when the Palestinian flag became more of a pronounced presence in communities throughout the Triangle (a concentration of Arab towns and villages adjacent to the Green Line) and further north, in the Galilee, it was Rakah – one of the incarnations of the Israeli Communist Party, which is today represented in the Hadash party – that objected. MK Meir Vilner, for example, Rakah’s leader, criticized the flying of the Palestinian flag because, “when it is raised in Israel, it’s as though we are saying: The area of Israel should also be incorporated into the Palestinian state.” Nazareth mayor and also MK Tawfiq Zayyad, one of the most influential voices among the left-wing Arab leadership in Israel, argued that although there was no doubt that the flag of Palestine is “our national flag,” displaying it was “a purely tactical question and not a fundamental question.” He urged people to act wisely in connection when it came to raising the flag at demonstrations.
Together with addressing the issue of flying (and not flying) flags, the historical record shows a systematic engagement with the music played at weddings in Arab society in Israel – which in the view of the authorities had a tendency to express forbidden national yearnings – and a rigorous monitoring of books of poetry read by the country’s Arab population. Until the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Arab literature in Israel was subjected to censorship. Suffice it to mention the writer Emil Habibi and the poet Samih al-Qasim, whose works were censored and even banned by the military censors, though today their books are available in bookshops.
In a meeting of the Central Committee for Security in February 1970, representatives of various security organizations addressed the logic of the supervision and censorship of books of Arabic poetry that were published in Israel, explaining that canceling the censorship of literature that contained what they perceived as “incitement,” would lead to a “loosening of the reins in Arab society.”
In these cases, too, as with the Palestinian flag, the issue at hand was not security or “public safety.” In fact, it was the prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs, Shmuel Toledano, who made it clear that the censorship was not at all intended to enhance Israel’s security, but constituted a tool for educating the Arab citizens.
It is regrettable to find that among those who are protesting today against the government’s effort to weaken the judiciary are demonstrators – perhaps they are even a majority – for whom raising a Palestinian flag at a protest in central Tel Aviv constitutes the sabotaging of the call for the democratization of the public space. In that sense, they have internalized the political and military logic that has ruled here for decades: Democracy, yes; but only up to a point.
Adam Raz is a researcher at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.Article link: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-02-17/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/how-israel-used-flags-to-assert-its-rule-over-the-palestinians/00000186-5c87-dba0-a5c6-5eff2bae0000
Article source: Haaretz | Adam Raz | Feb 17, 2023