London police reject Home Secretary's proposed Palestinian flag ban

Suella Braverman wrote to UK forces suggesting waving the flag could be seen as 'glorifying terrorism'

Police detain a man with a Palestinian flag at a vigil for Israel held in Manchester. Reuters
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One of London's police chiefs has rejected calls by Home Secretary Suella Braverman to act on protesters waving the Palestinian flag as she outlined why it does not meet the grounds for consideration as a criminal offence.

Deputy Commissioner Dame Lynne Owens has vowed to protect the Jewish community but has made it clear her officers will not be taking automatic action against protesters waving flags.

In an open letter to London's Jewish communities, Dame Lynne clarified the Metropolitan Police's position.

“An expression of support for the Palestinian people more broadly, including flying the Palestinian flag, does not, alone, constitute a criminal offence,” she wrote.

“What we cannot do is interpret support for the Palestinian cause more broadly as automatically being support for Hamas or any other proscribed group, even when it follows so soon after an attack carried out by that group and when to many the link seems indisputable.

“Behaviour at protests goes beyond what is and isn’t seen as support for proscribed groups. I know that in the past we have seen people use these opportunities to make statements that are quite clearly anti-Semitic and a hate crime.

“Abuse or intimidation that is religiously motivated will not be accepted and officers will act when they see it.

“We will act swiftly where people break the law and we will do everything in our power to protect you and to make you feel safe.”

Her stance has been echoed by forces across the country.

Less than 24 hours after Ms Braverman's call for forces to halt flag waving, West Yorkshire Police also stepped back from remonstrating with demonstrators during a pro-Palestine protest march in Bradford on Wednesday night.

Bradford's Friends of Palestine, who organised the march in the city, handed out dozens of flags to demonstrators in defiance of Ms Braverman as officers watched on.

“People can fly the Israeli flag, so why can't we fly Palestine's flag to show our support?” Bilal Tariq told The National, as he waved the flag aloft.

“We will continue to fly the flag. It's a mockery to ask us not to. You can see by the amount of flags everyone feels the same.”

On the same night, Greater Manchester Police detained a man who had unfurled a Palestinian flag while shouting "free Palestine" at a vigil organised by the city's Jewish community.

Ms Braverman had said that waving the Palestinian flag “may not be legitimate” as it could constitute an expression of support for Hamas, which is a proscribed as a terrorist group in the UK.

“Behaviours that are legitimate in some circumstances, for example, the waving of a Palestinian flag, may not be legitimate such as when intended to glorify acts of terrorism,” she said.

Her comments were backed by opposition leader Keir Starmer, who said that waving the flag could be seen as “provoking or encouraging attacks” on Jewish communities in some circumstances.

It has provoked a backlash across all communities.

“So having the Palestinian flag is a crime in UK! And we have a freedom of expression and speech here,” wrote anti-racism campaigner Jawaahir Daahir on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Thousands have gathered to march in solidarity for Palestine and for Israel across British cities this week, stoking fears that community tensions could lead to violence.

In a Jewish area of north London, a cafe was vandalised.

Imposing restrictions on the Palestinian flag could deepen these divisions, many have warned.

“It is ridiculous and deeply divisive to even suggest the banning of raising the Palestinian flag,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), told The National.

“Palestinians have a legitimate right, as do those who support them, to back their quest for freedom and self-determination.

“It is dangerous to conflate the atrocities committed by Hamas with legitimate Palestinian demands that are backed up by international law.

“It is highly irresponsible, risking stirring up community tensions all for political gain. There is absolutely nothing wrong with waving a Palestinian flag at all, and nobody should suggest that ever.”

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign said Ms Braverman's instruction was “threatening to civil liberties”.

“It is deeply concerning and likely to further normalise a dehumanising of Palestinians that is currently widespread in political discourse,” director Ben Jamal told The National.

He has invited protesters to fly the flag of Palestine at a march in London on Saturday.

“[We] will be leading a march in London on Saturday calling for an end to violence in the region by dealing with the root causes of violence, which requires the international community to hold Israel to account for its decades-long imposition of an illegal military occupation and system of apartheid,'' he said.

“We will be inviting people to fly the flag of Palestine in support of those principles. A police force enacting this instruction denies the right of Palestinians to fly a flag which is the symbol both of their nationhood and struggle for liberation from Israel’s system of oppression. It is also an assault on the basic right of British citizens.''

Dame Lynne has reassured London’s Jewish communities that antisemitic acts and hate crimes will be tackled.

“In the coming days and weeks there will no doubt be further challenges and further protests,” she said.

“We will police them without fear or favour and I expect our officers to act where they see offences, including expressions of support for proscribed organisations or any instance of religious hatred.

“Please know those of us who joined policing to serve and protect find acts of violence, threats and kidnapping abhorrent.”

Updated: October 12, 2023, 11:18 AM