Celtic Flying The (Palestinian) Flag

by | Aug 26, 2016

Those insisting sport and politics shouldn’t mix are hopelessly naïve. Sport is too popular worldwide for it not to be used by those with well-tuned political senses. The fight against Apartheid was as much about South Africa’s sporting isolation as students declaring “until Barclays Bank disassociates itself from the Apartheid regime I shall take my overdraft elsewhere.” Of course, a few hundred protestors at a sporting event only impact significantly as part of a multi-faceted, on-going movement which picks their sporting event wisely. Protests at one rugby tour in 1969 didn’t bring down Apartheid. But it was part of something which did.

On August 17th, a “few-hundred”-strong protest occurred at a sporting event, part of a multi-faceted on-going movement. The results, and subsequent events, suggested organisers picked their event wisely. Celtic Fans for Palestine, a “small group with a shared interest in Celtic and Palestine,” noted that Palestinian flags have “been seen at Celtic Park…since at least the late 1980s” because of Celtic fans’ “radical history.” So they organised Fly the flag, for Palestine, for Celtic, for Justice, for Celtic’s Uefa Champions League play-off first leg against Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva at Celtic Park.

On August 10th they asked for Celtic fans’ support, claiming “Celtic have been drawn with an Israeli football team who under UEFA’S own rules should not be allowed to participate” because of their actions in Palestine.  “When someone is representing Israeli state institutions it is sadly never merely a game, football. Uefa and Celtic are being used to whitewash Israel’s true nature. The air of normality and acceptance” afforded Israel by their inclusion in Uefa competition was unacceptable until it was “answerable to international law” on Palestine. Sanctions were sure to follow, given Celtic’s banner-related run-ins with Uefa. They were fined €18,000 for flying a Palestinian flag at a Champions League qualifier in July 2014, having previously been divested of £21,000 partly for a banner containing the “unhelpful” suggestion “F**k Uefa.”

Also that month, St Johnstone were fined €18,000 when a Palestinian flag was “spotted” at their Europa League qualifier. Likewise, at League of Ireland Dundalk’s Europa League qualifier.  The demos were in response to Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge”, a sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut military response to rocket attacks from Palestinian terrorists. And Uefa deemed them political because “the conflict with Israeli forces…is still on-going.” They breached Uefa disciplinary regulations Article 16(2)e, proscribing “the (transmission of) any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly…of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature”; Uefa, pompously you may think for a governing body of only one part of only one sport, proclaiming what is “fit for a sports event.”

Celtic fans were split on the wisdom of the protest. “Between a rock and a hard place” ran the headline to a thoughtful piece on the Celtic Underground website by Harry Brady, highlighting Uefa’s hypocrisy (“…it’s all nonsense…we are only playing an Israeli team…from the Middle East, for political reasons!”). However, “many ask will waving a flag at Celtic Park achieve anything bar a cost to the club?”  “The crux of this issue for many, including the club” was that “Uefa…rules may be a nonsense but…to play in their competitions you have to abide by (them).” And he recognized the club’s “big fear,” the “accumulation of small events…getting very close to the point…when a section of the ground will be closed for a game.”

Perhaps surprising his regular readers, Celtic-minded blogger James Forrest vehemently opposed the protest. On The Celtic Blog he claimed it was “for no reason at all that I can fathom…gesture politics of the most ridiculous kind.” And he gave short shrift to the notion of “solidarity” with the Palestinians “as if they will be tuned to BT Sport…and be able to appreciate it.” He added: “Not a single Palestinian will be better off. Know what they would appreciate more? A donation to one of the many Palestinian charities.”

However, an early indication that the protest might resonate further surfaced when the Jerusalem Post newspaper’s website covered the protest within hours of its announcement. The sub-headline was predictably hostile: Soccer team’s supporters plan to show their contempt for Israel with rude welcome for Beersheba. But the protest had immediately reached a relevant audience.

Police Scotland stated, according to a Scotsman newspaper headline, that Celtic fans “could be arrested if they wave Palestinian flags.” But this was no quote. Superintendent Alan Murray told the Scottish Sun: “At every match, police monitor the behaviour of the crowd, including any flags or banners displayed, and make a judgement on whether there is criminality.” The story suggested flag-waving breached Scotland’s controversial Offence Behaviour at Football Act (OBA). “The nature of Celtic’s opponents could mean (it) will be interpreted as ‘stirring up hatred against…persons…defined by reference to a thing (!) mentioned in sub-section (4)’ which includes ‘nationality’ or ‘ethnic or national origins.’” Other than “stirring up” fears about the protest, the article was horses**t.

At the match, flags flew all around Celtic Park, mostly where Celtic this summer installed a “safe-standing area.” The area was a sea of Palestine flags, a stunningly-photogenic image, which helped the story into major worldwide publications. Including Italy’s centre-left La Repubblica and right-wing Il Giornale papers. Pan-Latin American TV network Telesur’s website. Russia Today. Arab media outlets Al Araby and Al-Jazeera. So Foot (“the biggest football magazine in France”). And The Times of Israel.  The latter reported “the defiant move by Celtic supporters…hailed by Palestinian Twitter users and activists online.” And the hashtag #thankyouceltic attracted messages from inside and outside football, Celtic and non-Celtic-minded alike.

Even Rangers fans had a nuanced, intelligent respons…ha…no…only kidding. They blunder-bussed into the debate in inimitably gormless fashion, including claims that they saw debates between protestors and Israeli fans outside Celtic Park descend into trouble, with Israeli fans needing police protection. Who knows why these Rangers eavesdroppers were outside Celtic Park on a Celtic European night. Celtic Park is back from the road, not somewhere you accidentally land outside while going to the shops. But the Jewish Chronicle reported: “A small group of demonstrators shouted “Israel is a racist state” and “Viva Palestina” outside the ground.” And Stanley Lovatt, the honorary Israeli consul in Scotland who attended the game, said: “There was a flurry of Palestinian flags inside the ground…but absolutely no trouble at all.” Rangers fans also claimed protestors supported “the PLO.” They demanded Uefa action (Uefa’s observer would have to be asleep to have missed the flags) and that the Mainstream Scottish Media (MSM) end their protest “silence,” given the media criticism of Rangers fans for banners and gestures at past European ties (including one in Israel).

These latter accusations were loopy. The Daily Record newspaper ran a part-condemnatory website piece when the game was twelve minutes old. Scottish dailies focused on the inevitable Uefa sanctions…the three inevitabilities in life being death, taxes (insert Rangers tax joke here) and Uefa sanctioning Celtic for “illicit banners.” And Glasgow’s Evening Times columnist Scott Mullen wrote some ill-informed claptrap about Celtic fans “determined to bring…trouble to…their own club on a crusade of self-indulgence.” “I assume they have all been petitioning politicians and demonstrating outside embassies? Aye, thought not,” he said, ignorant of Celtic fans’ Palestine campaigning history. “Don’t worry, wee Davie from Castlemilk is on the case.” Presumably not Rangers chairman Dave King from…Castlemilk? File under “patronising w**k.”

More intelligent opposition came from Shlomo Anker, part of the Jews for Justice for Palestine network and a… Leyton Orient fan. He wrote: “Hapoel Be’er Sheva is not a “Pro-Apartheid” team but a liberal team with three key Palestinian players. Blaming them for the occupation is like blaming Everton for Britain’s war in Iraq.” And he added: “Flying Palestinian flags against the Israeli national team or against racist teams like Beitar Jerusalem would be cool and a legitimate protest. But doing it against Hapoel Be’er Sheva is at best ignorant and at worst very offensive.”

Whether Anker thought the Palestinian players would be offended isn’t clear. And the protest wasn’t specifically against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. But it was sound advice for anyone taking it in that direction. SNP MSP James Dornan tweeted: “A fantastic show of support from the Celtic supporters for the people of Palestine” and was accused of supporting a demo which was “clearly illegal under the OBA” (it wasn’t), of “showing pride in a Nazi-saluting, anti-semitic, sectarian political demonstration,” “blindly condemning Israel” and supporting the IRA.

The latter accusation was illustrated by a photo of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon alongside Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Dornan responded with a photo of the Queen shaking McGuinness’s hand above the question “and your point is?” And the idea that the left-wing Green Brigade fans’ group would indulge in “Nazi-saluting” and anti-semitism defies rational analysis. The protest wasn’t destined to be news again until 22nd September, when Uefa meet to discuss sanctioning Celtic. However, it was news again on Monday, in a game-changing manner.

The Green Brigade said Celtic had “earned respect and acclaim throughout the world” but “also attracted a disciplinary charge from Uefa” for flying an “illicit banner.” So, they turned the tables on Uefa: “In response to this petty politically partisan act…we are determined to make a positive contribution to the game and launch a campaign to #matchthefineforpalestine. “We aim to raise £15,000…split 50/50 between Medical Aid Palestine (MAP) and the Lajee Centre…in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. (The) £15k target is based on (Celtic’s) previous fine for the displaying of Palestinian flags…in 2014. This will be amended as required when Uefa decide on the amount the fine will be.”

“MAP,” they explained, “delivers health and medical care to those worst affected by conflict occupation and displacement…working in partnership with local health providers and hospitals.” While the Lajee Centre money was for “a youth football team…in the Bethlehem Youth League.” They added: “There are no organised teams in Aida…(and)…in recognition of the show of support from Celtic fans and all those around the world, the team would be called Aida Celtic.” The former was a vital service. The latter a PR-masterstroke and a long-standing Celtic fans’ cause. A Guardian newspaper article on 23 August noted: “The relationship between Celtic and Lajee goes back six years, and…players from the centre, which runs football courses and activities for 80 girls and boys, have visited Glasgow.”

The Green Brigade added: “Let’s #matchthefineforpalestine and show the footballing establishment the true spirit of the game.” The £15,000 target was surpassed within hours, money donated faster than newspaper headlines could be amended. And protest critics were, according to a now-supportive Forrest, “blown away.” Forrest added: “I am stunned by the simplistic brilliance of marrying (charity donations) to the concept of a Uefa fine.” The opposition was boringly predictable. Responding to the gratitude expressed to Rangers fans who donated, one twitter creature suggested: “Only terrorist loving c**ts have donated, Rangers fans are clean-living people not unwashed terrorist loving scum. Nuke Palestine.”

“It” added: “If Celtic fans donate…to Hamas, Celtic should be banned from every footballing competition with immediate effect. It’s a well-known fact that money entering Palestine goes to Hamas, it’s a fact.” And what tweet ending “It’s a fact” could ever be doubted? The Scottish Sun (who else?) ran a piece headlined Celtic fans should make sure they’re not raising money for terrorists. Israeli Embassy Officer for Civil Society Affairs, Michael Freeman, said fans “should make sure they are not giving money to people…not interested in the welfare of Palestinians but…instead, in killing Israelis.” The fund-raising was “fine, if they are giving it to people…in genuine need” But “Hamas are ruthlessly manipulating… people (genuinely interested) in peace by diverting funds meant for good causes to kill young children.”

The story claimed another local charity director “was a leading light in Hamas.” However, Freeman’s theory lacked any evidence whatsoever that the beneficiary charities were, are or would ever be, linked to terrorism. If it was designed to scupper the fund-raising, it failed wonderfully. The 2014 “fine” has been “matched” ten times over with donations from 8,500 “fans of teams from all over the world and non-football fans.” The campaign will “remain open at the very least until Uefa confirm the punishment” and “many people…say they intend to donate after being paid at the end of the month.” Sport and politics has mixed, then, to some good effect. It has been instructive to see what the protest has achieved. Clearly, it isn’t going to solve the Palestine issue by this weekend…or by next weekend to be realistic. But the last week could prove a small part of something that does.