A flag is a piece of cloth, usually rectangular, of distinctive color and design, used as a symbol, standard, signal, or emblem. States use flags as symbols to distinguish themselves from other states. They can evoke the freedom and independence of a nation; they can be a source of national memories and evidence of the nation’s unity and cohesion. For countries under colonial rule or occupation, they can be instruments for mobilizing resistance.
The Historical Roots of the Palestinian Flag
The roots of the Palestinian flag go back to the days of the Arab nationalist movement on the eve of World War I, and especially to al-Fatat (the Young Arab Society), which was founded in Paris in 1911, and the Ottoman Party for Administrative Decentralization, founded in Cairo in 1913. The leaders of these movements wanted to create a symbol and emblem that Arab provinces could adopt when they broke free from Ottoman rule. It combines three colors: black, white, and green, as explained in “The Third Cry,” a statement by the Young Arab Society: “Peace be upon you, our nation, peace. May righteousness protect our nation in the blackness of the night, the whiteness of conscience, and the greenness of certain hope.” When Sharif Hussein in the Hijaz declared the Great Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, on 10 June 1916, the color red appeared as a triangle on the flag. On the first anniversary of the declaration, in 1917, it was decided that the flag of the new Hashemite state should have horizontal bands in black, green, and white, with a vermilion triangle stretching the full width of the flag at the staff and projecting into the flag for a distance twice its height.
Some sources say that British diplomat Mark Sykes selected the colors of the Arab flag and put his suggestion to Sharif Hussein, but it is more likely that Sykes volunteered some designs for an Arab flag in the four colors after learning, during his meetings with Arab nationalists, especially in Egypt, that they had already set their minds on these colors for the flag. He may have discussed this with the Sharif of Mecca when they met in the port of Jeddah in early May 1917.
When Arab rebel forces entered Damascus on 30 September 1918, the four-colored Arab flag was raised in place of the Ottoman flag. But when the General Syrian Congress invited Hussein’s son Faisal to be king of Syria, a special flag was created for an independent Syria. This was the first Arab flag in the same colors and design, but with a white seven-pointed star added in the middle of the red triangle. Leaders of the Palestinian National Movement, which became independent of the nationalist movement in Damascus in late 1920, adopted the flag of the Arab revolt as the flag of Palestine as a symbol of the first national liberation movement in the Arab world and as a first step toward Arab unity. Their single modification to the design of the flag was in the order of the three horizontal bands: they placed the black at the top, white in the middle, and green along the bottom.
After imposing its authority as the Mandate power in Palestine, the British government devised its own flag for the country: a British Red Ensign with the Union Flag in the upper-left canton and, in the red field, a white circle and the word Palestine in English arranged around the upper part of the circle. Palestinians refused to recognize this flag and raised their own flag in demonstrations and on national occasions. (The Palestinian flag was banned by the Mandate authorities.)
When the Mandate came to an end, the Palestine National Council, which met in Gaza on 30 September – 1 October 1948 at the invitation of the All-Palestine Government, announced the independence of Palestine and proclaimed the flag of the Arab Revolt as the flag of Palestine. But when Jordan annexed the West Bank, the Arab flag was replaced by the Jordanian flag there, and the Egyptian flag was raised in the Gaza Strip after Egypt took administrative control of the area. When the Free Officers overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in July 1952, the new government allowed Palestinians to fly the Palestinian flag alongside the Egyptian flag at public events in Gaza.
The Adoption of the Palestinian Flag in Its Current Form
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in early June 1964, and on 1 October the PLO Executive Committee met and decided on the specifications of the Palestinian flag. Its length would be twice its width, and it would be divided into three horizontal bands of equal width, a black band at the top, a white band in the middle, and a green band at the bottom. There would be a red isosceles triangle with its longest side flush against the side of the flag at the mast. This became the flag of the Palestinian resistance when it began in 1965 and the flag of the state of Palestine that was declared by the Palestine National Council in Algiers in November 1988. It then became the official emblem of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) that was set up in the self-rule areas in 1994.
Since the start of the Palestinian resistance movement, supporters of the Palestinian cause have raised the Palestinian flag across the world in their demonstrations to express solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence.
The Sanctity of the Palestinian Flag
On 22 December 2005, Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the PLO executive committee and president of the PNA, issued a law on the sanctity of the Palestinian flag, known as law 22 of 2005. It specifies the colors and dimensions of the flag, how it should be respected, where it should be raised, and the penalties for violations of the flag law.
The law says the flag should be raised on all PLO and PNA buildings and the buildings of institutions belonging to the PNA, its forces and its representative offices abroad, and at holidays and on all national occasions. No other flag may be raised on government offices or institutions or on public places, and any other flag or sign in the form of a flag cannot be flown above the Palestinian flag at the same site. The law says the flag must be respected and cannot be abused or treated with contempt in word or in deed. It must be kept clean and maintained in a state appropriate to its symbolic status. Under this law, the flag can be flown at half-mast by ministerial decree when necessary, for specified periods and for reasons stated in the same decree.
The Raising of the Palestinian Flag at UN Headquarters in New York
On 30 September 2015, the president of the state of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, raised the flag of Palestine at UN Headquarters in New York for the first time, alongside the flags of UN member states. In a speech after the flag-raising, he said: “This is a historic moment in the course of our people’s struggle. This flag represents our national identity and is dedicated to those who have been killed in conflict or imprisoned.” The same day he decided to designate that day as Palestinian Flag Day.
The UN General Assembly had passed Resolution 69/320 on 10 September 2015, which stated that flags of states that have observer status at the UN but are not full members could be raised at UN headquarters in New York. The preamble to the resolution noted that the state of Palestine became a non-member state with observer status on 29 November 2012. One hundred and nineteen countries voted for the resolution, eight voted against, and forty-five abstained.
The Palestinian Flag in Israeli Law
After Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in June 1967, the occupation forces detained and prosecuted anyone caught raising the Palestinian flag in those areas, on the grounds that it was the flag of the outlawed PLO. This was based on the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance No. 33, dating back to 23 September 1948. On 30 July 1980, the ordinance was amended to include “any act manifesting identification or sympathy with a terrorist organisation in a public place or in such manner that persons in a public place can see or hear such manifestation of identification or sympathy, either by flying a flag or displaying a symbol or slogan or by causing an anthem or slogan to be heard, or any other similar overt act clearly manifesting such identification or sympathy as aforesaid.” Anyone accused of committing such act could be imprisoned for up to three years.
The occupation authorities’ campaign against people who fly the Palestinian flag became especially strict in the years of the First Intifada, which broke out in December 1987. After the Oslo accords were signed, the Israeli authorities generally avoided prosecuting people for flying the Palestinian flag in occupied Palestinian areas, based on advice from the Supreme Court. That lasted until 2014, when the government’s deputy legal adviser for criminal matters said that the police should remove the Palestinian flag in cases where flying it led to “breaches of the peace and threats to the safety of the public.” In these cases the perpetrators could be prosecuted.
Since the late 1970s the Palestinian flag has sometimes appeared at demonstrations and other gatherings of Palestinians inside Israel. This has become more common in recent years, especially in Israeli universities. In order to suppress this practice, in 2022 the Israeli Knesset passed a law banning the flying of the Palestinian flag at institutions inside Israel, including universities. Sixty-three of the 120 Knesset members voted for this law, and 16 voted against. The opposition parties, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had submitted the draft law in response to the outcry in right-wing nationalist and religious opposition parties when dozens of students raised the Palestinian flag at Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University in Beersheba during commemorations of the Nakba in May 2022.
Adalah. “Adalah: Q & A on the Legality of Waving the Palestinian Flag.” 18 August 2022. https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/10628
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “The Origins of the Palestinian Flag.” http://passia.org/page/23
Sher, Isaac. “Israel and the Palestinian Moves to Ban the Palestinian Flag.” Jewish Currents. 7 June 2022. https://jewishcurrents.org/israel-moves-to-ban-the-palestinian-flag
State of Palestine, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. “The Palestinian Flag.” http://www.mofa.pna.ps/en-us/palestine/thepalestinianflag