UK football fans plan warm welcome for Israeli team – with Palestinian flags

Published August 11th, 2016 - 09:00 GMT
Red, green, white and black may join Celtic's usual colours next week (AFP / File)
Red, green, white and black may join Celtic's usual colours next week (AFP / File)

Israeli football team HaPoel Beersheba is up against Scotland’s Celtic F.C. in the Champion’s League next week – and it could be a tougher pairing off the pitch than on.

Celtic fans plan to greet the Israeli players with Palestinian flags in a gesture of political solidarity with the occupied Arab people.

An event, entitled “Fly the flag for Palestine, for Celtic, for Justice” by Facebook group Celtic Fans for Palestine, had on Thursday attracted more than 900 attendees Thursday. It was posted, the group wrote, “as a result of many discussions here and elsewhere”.

John, an organiser of the demonstration, told Al Bawaba that fans hoped to show Palestinians that support for them was alive and well in European club football. He said the protest sought to oppose the participation of Israeli teams in the Champions’ League in line with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – although he accepted that actually boycotting HaPoel Beersheba was not an option.

“We know we’re not there yet, and not all Celtic fans are there, so we want to showcase some visual opposition,” he said.

On the site, organisers highlighted prejudiced legislation in Israel as grounds for protest, as well as the deaths of Palestinians at the hands of the state. “Celtic have been drawn with an Israeli football team who under UEFA'S own rules should not be allowed to participate in this competition due to the system of apartheid laws and practices,” it states. “We Celtic fans invoke our democratic rights to display our opposition to Israeli Apartheid, settler - colonialism and countless massacres of the Palestinian people.” 

The page stressed that the group would not be pushing other fans to protest, but asked observers to “respect” the idea that football could not be separated from politics.

Celtic football club grew from Scotland’s marginalised Irish Catholic communities and it draws on struggles for social justice and workers’ rights in Glasgow. It’s from that political tradition that support for Palestine springs. “Radical politics and Irish politics has always existed in Celtic Park,” John explained. “When the first Intifada broke out, that’s when support for Palestine in the club really started.” 

Indeed, this isn’t the first time Celtic have made a stand against Israeli teams. Two years ago, UEFA fined the club £16,000 after fans flew Palestinian flags during a game against Reykjavik, on the grounds that political ideological and religious messages should not be allowed at sports events. In 2012, fans displayed solidarity with striking Palestinian hunger strikers by displaying banners and flags, and they’ve participated in exchange visits with Palestinian activists too.

On Facebook, the idea was met with an angry response from supporters of Israel, some of whom argued that Palestinian statehood was not a legitimate cause or that protest should be kept out of sport. Others posted offensive memes and comments, such as images of an “Israeli” lion killing a “Palestinian” Zebra, or misogynistic and racist slurs against Arab women.

Israeli mainstream media and official channels were similarly dismissive. The Jerusalem Post called the gesture “rude”, while a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy asked “what’s the point?” and suggested it would not be allowed, according to British site 5Pillars. 

John said the group was well aware of the risk of arrest and further fines as a result of the protest, but was convinced of its importance. “We’re trying to use this opportunity to spread discourse and educate people,” he said.

After playing BeerSheba in Glasgow on August 17, Celtic will travel to Israel for a second game the following week. How that will go down remains to be seen.

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