Israel’s parliament voted on Wednesday for a bill to ban the display of PLO flags, or the flags of any other terrorist organization, on Israeli university campuses.
The vote passed its first reading in the Knesset plenum by a vote of 52 to 30. It will require two more plenum votes to become law.
The proposed law would not only ban the flag of “an enemy state, terrorist organization or the Palestinian Authority,” but would remove supporters of terrorism from academic institutions and immediately disband student cells that support terrorism.
For a first violation, a student would be suspended for “a period of not less than 30 days.” A second offense would lead to the student’s permanent removal from the institution. Moreover, the student would be denied the right to obtain an academic degree in Israel for a period of five years.
The bill notes in its explanatory section that “academic institutions have become in the last year a central stage of incitement in the State of Israel. At Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion and Hebrew universities, students held demonstrations explicitly in favor of the Intifada and, in some cases, even explicitly chanted slogans in favor of terrorists.”
The bill had been delayed for a month following opposition from university heads and the Attorney General’s office.
“This is a problematic and dangerous bill—they want to turn the institutions [of higher education] into an arm of the Shin Bet,” said the Association of University Heads, referring to Israel’s internal security service.
Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara also opposed the bill. In a letter distributed to government members, she said that the bill raised “real constitutional difficulties,” listing infringements on the freedom of expression and protest and freedom of occupation.
The bill was submitted by Knesset member Limor Son Har-Melech of the Otzma Yehudit Party as an amendment to Israel’s Students’ Rights Law of 2007.
“The bill I have proposed is necessary for the fight against terrorism, and the opposition of the left raises difficult questions about the ability of a democratic country to defend itself against a hostile neighbor deeply rooted within it,” said Har-Melech in a statement provided to JNS.
“Unfortunately, we are dealing with a very alarming phenomenon, wherein the guise of freedom of expression, terror-supporting cells are rising within universities and do not refrain from inciting terror and violence from within the campuses themselves,” she added.
Currently, police have the authority to take down PLO flags if they are displayed in solidarity with a terror group, or if there is a high probability that leaving the flag up will result in a public disturbance.
However, flying the PLO flag in public is not in itself a criminal offense.
Following an event on the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev campus, in which Bedouin students flew PLO flags during a demonstration to mark “Nakba Day,” the Palestinian day of mourning over Israel’s establishment in 1948, Ben-Gurion University President Daniel Chamovitz advised the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee to pass a law if it wished to outlaw the practice.
The government could not expect universities to ban pro-Palestinian rallies, said Chamovitz, noting that the waving of P.A. flags, while troubling, was not illegal.
“The Palestinian flag threatens many Jews. I understand and feel this pain—but that doesn’t mean there’s violence on campus,” he added.
“Once [the flags] were raised, we understood that this was lawful and that no action could be taken to remove them. We acted according to law and following an opinion from the Justice Ministry. If you think that the law recognizing the Palestinian flag should be changed—please do so. It’s not in our hands, although I and many others were troubled by this,” he added.
According to the committee’s legal adviser, Nira Lamay Rachlevsky, the mere act of flying a P.A. flag could not constitute an offense in and of itself since Israel has a diplomatic agreement with the P.A.
However, when there was “real concern” that the flag indicated “identification or sympathy” with a terrorist organization, or when there was a high likelihood that flying it would lead to a “severe disruption” of public order, police must act, she said.
“To the best of our knowledge, case law does not address specifically the case of raising the flag while chanting ‘With blood and fire we will redeem Palestine,’” she said.