Glasgow Celtic Football Club is arguably Scotland’s most famous and successful team, but rarely does it make headlines beyond the sports pages; until now. Celtic’s fans have demonstrated an unprecedented act of solidarity with the people of Palestine, and it is going viral.
What have the generous folk in Scotland done? Quite simply, in terms of peaceful civil rights movements, they have produced a “game changer” which will go on to have a profound effect on the future of the already powerful global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Thousands of ordinary Celtic fans picked up and waved Palestinian flags at their Celtic Park Stadium during a match against an Israeli team, as reported here in MEMO; the flag-waving demonstration flew in the face of police advice. This simple but powerful act of mass defiance created a storm of media attention across the Middle East, which has now propelled Celtic alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United in terms of stature and popularity in the region.
Football’s European governing body, UEFA, warned that it would fine Celtic for its fans actions, but the fans retorted that they would match any fine imposed on the club, pound for pound, in donations to Palestinian causes. True to their word, the Green Brigade has raised nearly £100,000 in a crowdfunding appeal for Palestinian charities; the total continues to rise.
By way of showing their appreciation, Palestinians have come together to produce video messages like this one on social networks declaring, “We are all Celtic.”
In a statement, the Green Brigade explained that Celtic fans waved Palestinian flags at the Champions League match with Hapoel Beer Sheva on 17 August in an act of solidarity which “has earned our club respect and acclaim throughout the world. It has also attracted a disciplinary charge from UEFA, which deems the Palestinian flag to be an ‘illicit banner’.”
In response to what the group calls a “petty and politically partisan act” by UEFA, Celtic fans remain determined to make a positive contribution to the game. “We are today launching a campaign to #matchthefineforpalestine. We aim to raise £75,000 which will be split equally between Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Lajee Centre, a Palestinian cultural centre in Aida Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. From our members’ experiences as volunteers in Palestine we know the huge importance of both organisations’ work and have developed close contacts with them.”
MAP has thanked the Celtic fans publicly on its website here and confirms that all funds will go to mending broken limbs in Gaza and other vitally important projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and refugee camps. Aida is one of 19 refugee camps in the occupied West Bank; it has for 66 years played temporary home to Palestinians expelled forcibly by Israel from their homes in Hebron and Jerusalem.
Aida’s residents live in the shadow of Israel’s apartheid wall, cut off from social and economic opportunities by the concrete monstrosity, neighbouring illegal Jewish settlements and military checkpoints. For the young people of the camp, the Lajee Centre at its heart offers hope and an escape from the realities of life under Israeli occupation. Its programme of arts, culture and sporting activities are a lifeline for its impoverished and oppressed people.
Last year, the centre built Aida’s only football pitch; previously, residents played on a recreation ground that has now been stolen by the snaking wall. Within months of opening, the new pitch was severely damaged by tear gas canisters fired onto it by Israeli soldiers. It is now protected by metal netting.
It is this sort of action by the Zionist State which football fans say should be tackled by the likes of UEFA and FIFA, football’s world governing body, by threatening Israel with expulsion from international football tournaments. Undeterred, however, and inspired by the fundraising actions of the Green Brigade, the centre says that it is going to form the camp’s first ever football club and name it Aida Celtic. The team will play in the Bethlehem Youth League at the start of 2017 and will host a tournament for teams from all of the West Bank’s refugee camps in spring next year. The donation from Glasgow Celtic fans will enable the Lajee management to buy a minibus for transporting players to matches and its other activities around Palestine.
“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 colours of our friends,” said Salah Ajarma, the Lajee Centre’s Coordinator. “Aida Celtic will be a source of pride for all in the camp.”
The crowdfunding target was originally £15,000, which was the amount of a previous fine imposed by UEFA on Celtic for a similar action by fans. That penalty did not deter the Celtic faithful. “If we were to allow an Israeli team to come to Celtic without any challenge to Israeli policies then that normalises Israel’s war crimes,” said a Green Brigade spokesperson.
Celtic Football Club insists that it will not comment on recent events until UEFA has concluded its disciplinary proceedings. In the meantime, Israeli police have warned that Palestinian flag-waving at the return leg of the match, at which 250 Celtic fans are expected to attend, “will not be tolerated” according to a Guardian newspaper report.
“This was very much home grown and very deep and very profound,” said Mick Napier, a co-founder of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. “There are moments in a campaign where something burst outs into the public domain that was never imagined and has a huge effect. It was a mass public declaration that the injustices of the brutal Palestinian occupation will not be tolerated.” He described the protest at Celtic Park Stadium as hugely significant. “There aren’t very many democratic avenues for ordinary people to demonstrate this sort of huge public outpouring. What happened in the stadium that night cannot be ignored and will alarm the Israeli authorities and send out a clear message of support for the BDS movement.”
Napier pointed out that the primary task of protesting through BDS is to send a message to the beleaguered people of Palestine that they’re not alone. “You can put up with being in a prison if you know there’s real solidarity out there for you. This gesture from Celtic Park also shows Palestinians that there’s a huge gulf between our rulers and the ordinary people.” The actions of the Celtic fans, he added, will encourage and give support to the BDS movement at a time when supporters of Israel are trying to criminalise the entirely peaceful campaign. The generosity and solidarity of Glasgow Celtic fans is a game changer indeed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.