The headlines that reported on August’s Celtic–Hapoel Ber’er Sheva football match didn’t cover the importance of the game — although it was a qualifier for the Champions League — nor the quality of the play, despite it being an entertaining encounter that Celtic won by five goals to two.
Instead, it was the Celtic fans who grabbed everyone’s attention.
They had been warned that if they raised the Palestinian flag inside the stadium, the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), which prohibits political messages at matches, would fine the club. There had even been rumors that police would arrest those carrying the flag.
But Celtic supporters ignored both of these threats and unfurled hundreds of flags, showing their solidarity with Palestine and reminding the world that politics has always played a role in football. The Green Brigade — a group of ultra-faithful fans who identify as antiracist and antifascist — led the protest. Their section of the stands was awash with the colors of Palestine. Within minutes, the display was posted on social media and shared worldwide.
The group explained, “From our work with grassroots Palestinian groups in the West Bank and the refugee camps of Bethlehem, we know the positive impact international solidarity has on those living in the open prisons of the Occupied Territories.” They continued, “We also know that their suffering cannot be ignored by the international community and last night’s actions also sought to raise awareness of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) campaign which seeks to challenge the normalization of the Israeli occupation.”
As expected, UEFA quickly opened disciplinary proceedings against the club, charging them with the “display of an illicit banner.” In response, the Green Brigade launched a fundraiser to match whatever fine the authorities impose on the club. They plan to donate the proceeds to Medical Aid for Palestine and the Aida Refugee Camp’s Lajee Cultural Center.
An initial goal of £15,000 was set which was quickly surpassed and within a week the fund stood at a whopping £160,000 and rising. Part of the funds will go towards providing equipment, uniforms, and travel costs for the camp to enter a team in the Bethlehem Youth League. It will also pay for an annual “Aida Celtic” football tournament between refugee-camp teams from across the West Bank.
Lajee Cultural Center coordinator, Salah Ajarma, has welcomed the initiative and pledged to call the team “Aida Celtic” in recognition of the team’s fans. “It will mean so much to our young people to be part of an official team, to have boots and strips and to represent the camp wearing the colors of our friends,” said Ajarma. “Aida Celtic will be a source of pride for all in Aida.”
The Green Brigade has long supported Palestine. Previously, they brought a team from the West Bank to play in the Anti-Racism World Cup in Belfast. They also paid for a cultural tour for youth from the Lajee Center.
These charitable gestures are in keeping with Celtic’s foundations. The club was established in 1888 to raise funds for the poor of Glasgow’s east end — a densely populated Irish neighborhood full of overcrowded slums.
During the potato famine, the proportion of Irish immigration to the west coast of Scotland was higher than anywhere else in the world. The mostly Catholic immigrants faced discrimination and prejudice in what was then a staunchly Presbyterian Scotland, and the club served as a rallying point for the community. Like Barcelona was a source of pride to the Catalan community under the fascist dictatorship of Franco, Celtic has always been about more than just the football.
In 1952, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) threatened to suspend the club unless it stopped flying the Irish tricolor above the stadium. Celtic resisted the order, and the SFA backed down.
Meanwhile, the Irish republican songs heard on the terraces of Celtic Park have been met with fierce opposition by elements of Scottish society.
Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian and author of the Irish in Scotland, traces the fans’ solidarity with Palestine to this Irish heritage. “It’s to do with the sense that the Irish Catholics in Scotland have of being underdogs over several generations,” he explained to me last week. “There is a strong sense of history among that community, even though it’s now third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Irish.” He continues,
Part of their sense of communal identity is that sense of grievance about what was done in the past. People who are Irish nationalists will always tend to support independence movements that they believe to be based on historical justice. The situation in Palestine is a classic example of land that is being taken from people who lived there for generations. It chimes in with the course of Irish history.
The Offensive Behavior at Football Act — imposed by the Scottish National Party in 2012 — has intensified the tensions between Celtic and the football authorities. The government described the legislation as an effort to tackle sectarianism and granted police new powers to arrest fans engaged in behavior that could be deemed “offensive.”
Critics have decried the law’s subjective nature and argue that certain behaviors — like singing Irish republican songs — are being unfairly deemed sectarian or offensive. “We’ve been arguing all along that you cannot outlaw something as subjective as offensiveness,” says Paul Quigley, spokesperson for the campaign Fans Against Criminalization (FAC), “There’s been so many cases that have fallen apart when tested in court.”
FAC argues that the law effectively criminalizes young working-class fans. “It’s always been a class issue,” explains Quigley. “Football supporters are still viewed as being slum people by some sections of society. You see expressions of politics in other sports go without comment but when working-class fans want to make a political statement it’s cause for moral panic across the nation. At its root this stems from the view that these types of people don’t have a right to express political opinions.”
In 2014, a Celtic fan was questioned by police after wearing a “Free Palestine” t-shirt to an away game. Prior to last week’s match, some feared that the police would attempt to intervene in any show of solidarity. They didn’t, but the display received the usual criticism from the Scottish press.
Tom English, a prominent sports journalist for BBC Scotland, called the action “idiotic.” Even former Celtic player and manager Davie Hay waded into the debate in his regular newspaper column. He wrote that a football match isn’t the place to promote a political agenda while also strangely asserting that the Israel/Palestine conflict had “raged for 2,000 years.”
But the reaction online was altogether different. Celtic fans were praised for taking a stand against injustice. The hashtag #ThanksCelticFans trended on Twitter after Palestinians posted hundreds of messages of appreciation. The crest of Celtic was projected onto a wall in the West Bank city of Ramallah, a football team in the Gaza Strip held up a banner of appreciation, and residents of Aida Camp wore Celtic’s green and white jersey in their recorded message of thanks.
The action seems to have also inspired fans around the world. A week after Celtic’s display, fans of French team St Etienne waved Palestine flags at their Europa League tie against Beitar Jerusalem. Meanwhile fans of Irish side Dundalk are expected to follow suit at their upcoming tie against Maccabi Haifa. The club have previously faced sanction from UEFA after the support showed solidarity for Palestine at a match in 2014.
Quigley says that this response vindicates their campaign against the Scottish government’s “draconian” legislation.
What happened in the Hapoel game is the heart of what FAC is about. Football doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can be a force for good if people are able to express their views. You just need to look at the reaction of the Palestinian community and how much a positive effect that one small action has had.
With UEFA not expected to decide on a sanction until late September, the debate around the match will rage on for some time yet. The authorities will be keen to make an example of the Celtic supporters to warn them — and fans of other teams — against taking similar action, urging a strict separation between politics and football.
But Palestinian players don’t have that option. When their national stadium is bombed or the association’s headquarters raided, when they attempt to get a visa to play international matches, they cannot take the politics out of sports.
Palestinian footballers Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya faced that reality when Israeli soldiers shot them repeatedly in the feet at a West Bank checkpoint. International player Mahmoud Sarsak couldn’t opt out of politics when he was jailed for years without charges before holding a ninety-seven-day hunger strike to secure his freedom.
Therein lies the contradiction at the heart of UEFA’s stance. For Palestinians, politics is already in football: the authorities just choose to ignore it. Last week Celtic fans chose to highlight it. In doing so, they sent a message of solidarity that has echoed around the world.
As one message I received from a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon read: “The Celtic fans did not just raise a flag, they raised their voices, they raised awareness and most importantly they raised hope.”