Israel’s new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has ordered the state’s police commissioner to enforce a directive to remove Palestinian flags from public spaces a day after one was waved at an Israeli-led anti-government protest in Tel Aviv.
Ben-Gvir sent out the order to commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Sunday, flexing unprecedented powers granted to the ultra-nationalist politician as part of recent coalition negotiations to form Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Channel 13 news, which reported the initial order, also reported that Israeli police were unsure of the unilateral decree, as Israel’s High Court of Justice has already deemed in many rulings that the right to expression must not be restricted unless there is near certainty of a grave and genuine threat to public safety.
The court on 7 November, rejected a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) against the police commissioner, Jerusalem district commander, and state attorney, demanding an end to the harassment of demonstrators carrying the Palestinian flag. The court said the petition had been rejected because the Attorney General had already issued an update informing officers not to interfere with the flying of the flag unless it “has the potential to instigate a disturbance of the peace”, as per policy.
Still, far right pundits and policy makers expressed outrage following a display of the flag in Tel Aviv on Saturday, including Prime Minister Netanyahu who slammed “the opposition” and “mainstream media” for failing to condemn such “wild incitement”.
“I demand that everyone stop this immediately,” the prime minister tweeted.
In 2021, former Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev told commissioner Shabtai to only order the confiscation of Palestinian flags in exceptional security situations.
Ben-Gvir took exception however, to the flag’s presence in Haifa district’s village of ‘Ara over the weekend during a celebration of the release of Palestinian prisoner Karim Younis, who was freed on Thursday after 40 years in Israeli prison.
Historically, much discretion over whether the Palestinian flag should be permitted to fly has been left up to the police commissioner, with policy generally dictating that the flag be barred from Jerusalem where it is seen as having a “high level of probability of a major violation of public order”, but allowed in Tel Aviv, which lacks many of the flashpoint characteristics of the holy city.
Announcing the new flag directive, Ben-Gvir’s bureau also noted that the minister had instructed Shabtai to open an internal investigation to examine why his previous instruction to prevent celebrations of the prisoner’s release in ‘Ara were only partially carried out by officers, Haaretz reported.