Palestinian Arabs are angry that the Israeli authorities are prohibiting the display of the flag of “Palestine” at public events. The Israelis say the flag is being used to inspire violence. On both sides of this debate, everyone understands that a flag can be a powerful symbol—for good, or for evil. Flags mean something.
Think about the power of Betsy Ross’s iconic flag in the American Revolution. Or the GIs raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima. It isn’t just a piece of fabric. It stands for something much bigger.
The Jewish Legion, which fought as part of the British army in World War I, had its own flag with a Star of David. So did the Jewish Brigade that fought in World War II.
By contrast, think of the power of Nazi Germany’s swastika flag, or the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. Think about what those revolting symbols meant to the people whom those regimes oppressed.
As for the “Flag of Palestine,” the fact that there are conflicting accounts of its origin is itself rather telling. A separate, identifiable nation with a documented history knows where its flag came from. But throughout history, there has never been a sovereign “State of Palestine,” so the flag they use today is not the flag of some former kingdom or state of theirs.
Instead, it was designed either by an Arab literary club in Turkey in 1909, or an Arab youth group in France in 1911, or by an official of the British Foreign Office, depending on which account you believe. Either way, it was not designed by a “Palestinian,” because in those days, the Arabs living in the Holy Land didn’t call themselves Palestinians.
In 1917, the flag was proclaimed as the “Flag of the Arab Revolt” (against the Turks) by Hussein bin Ali, the king of Hejaz—that is, the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Again, not a Palestinian, and not the flag of “Palestine.”
The Arab League began calling it the “Flag of Palestine” in 1948. Note the date. The flag represented an imaginary “Palestine” which consisted of all of the newly created State of Israel. It was not the flag of the not-yet-occupied “West Bank.” Jordan ruled that territory.
When the Palestine Liberation Organization was established in 1964, it adopted the “Flag of Palestine.” Again, notice the date. The “West Bank” was, at that time, occupied by those Palestinian Arabs who had started calling themselves Jordanians. The PLO flag was the symbol of a terrorist group that was dedicated to destroying all of Israel and replacing it with “Palestine.”
The leftwing Labor government which ruled Israel in 1967 decided to ban the display of the Palestinian Arab flag in the newly liberated territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. That’s because successive Labor prime ministers—Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin—understood that the flag is, to the Palestinian Arabs, a flag of anti-Israel hatred and violence.
The Confederate flag has played a somewhat similar role in American history. It represents the violence, slavery and white supremacy for which the Confederacy stood. In recent years, as more Americans have come to recognize the evil that civil war-era symbols represent, the Confederate flag has been coming down.
In 2003, the state of Georgia removed the Confederate flag from its state emblem, and in 2020, Mississippi did likewise. In 2015, the legislature of South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of its capitol. No doubt there will be similar actions taken in the years ahead, given the widespread awareness in American society of the dangerous power of such symbols.
The Israeli government has at times taken a more lenient approach. When Israel and Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo accords in 1993, the Israelis temporarily stopped banning display of the Palestinian flag. It was one of the many concessions that Israel made, based on the promise that the Palestinian Arab leadership had sincerely forsaken terrorism and embraced peace.
Soon, of course, it turned out that Arafat was a liar and an unrepentant terrorist. The interception in 2001 of the Karine A, a ship carrying 50 tons of weapons that Arafat was trying to smuggle into Gaza, revealed his true nature and exposed his signature on the Oslo agreement as a sham.
Again and again, Israelis have watched as Palestinian Arabs have held rallies celebrating anti-Israel terrorism, at which their flag is waved prominently. They have chosen to wield that flag as a symbol of hatred and a means of inspiring violence. The decision of today’s Israeli authorities to restore the Labor governments’ ban makes perfect sense. The weaponization of flags for incitement, whether by violent white supremacists in the American South or by violent Palestinian Arabs, is unacceptable.
Stephen M. Flatowis an attorney and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror.”