UEFA’s discriminatory treatment of the Palestinian national flag was once again in focus last week when Glasgow giants Celtic met Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the Champions League in front of 60,000 spectators. The Israeli team was met with a veritable sea of Palestinian flags. The home team is now being threatened with yet another fine from European football’s governing body.
UEFA’s Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body meets on September 22nd to weigh up their options and decide a suitable punishment for Celtic FC. According to the UEFA football authorities, waving the Palestinian national flag is apparently a crime and a breach of Article 16 (2) of UEFA’s disciplinary rules which prohibits “the use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature.”
So how come the European football association chooses to define Palestine’s national flag as an “illicit banner”. The question really does need to be asked: why is it only the Palestinian national flag that is perceived by UEFA as offensive or provocative?
This is the same flag that flies proudly outside the UN building in New York, and was recently carried during the opening ceremony at the Olympics. The UEFA attitude smacks of discrimination and an attempt to criminalize Palestinian national symbols.
It is not the first time Celtic fans have been at odds with UEFA in demonstrating their solidarity for the Palestinian cause. The club was penalized with a £16,000 fine in 2014 when fans used banners and flags at the match against KR Reykjavik to show their solidarity with Palestinians during Israel’s bloody attack on civilians in Gaza.
Ahead of this latest match against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, supporters and Celtic FC were bombarded with not so subtle threats and the media were willing participants in the Israeli propaganda campaign.
The Israeli embassy in London warned against any demonstrations of support for Palestine and reminded the fans that there was a second leg to be played a week later in Be’er Sheva. Scottish police quoted Europe’s most idiotic law against “offensive behavior” at football matches and threatened to imprison people who came to the match with Palestinian flags. Newspaper headlines joined in, whipping up the frenzy reminding readers that Celtic had previously had to pay hefty fines for showing solidarity with the Palestinians.
Celtic supporters are not easily intimidated and have a long tradition of supporting the Palestinian liberation struggle. They relate readily to the historical parallels between Ireland and Palestine – colonization, occupation, oppression and a small nation struggling for its freedom against a major military power.
The fans response to the intimidation campaign that preceded the match came in the form of a huge wave of Palestinian flags during the match. Social media ensured that the images spread quickly around the world, forcing the so-called “mainstream media” to cover it. A separate hashtag #ThanksCelticFans began trending on several continents and video footage from the Palestinian refugee camps showed banners in green and white and enthused Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, grateful for the solidarity being shown in Glasgow.
When UEFA released its statement warning that the club was facing a disciplinary hearing, Celtic supporters responded by starting a fundraising campaign with the hashtag #matchthefineforpalestine.
The aim was not to pay the threatened fine against the club – which many think the club should fight – but to raise funds for the organizations Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Lajee Cultural Centre at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, which Celtic supporters have worked closely with for several years.
The supporter’s initial target of £15,000 was passed after only a few hours as the number of contributors continued to rise. The campaign ends in a few days, and so far it has raised over 10 times as much as expected – £160,000 pounds – mostly small amounts from over 9,000 individuals.
The overwhelming support for the fundraising campaign is now being interpreted by many as the necessary moral support the club needs to fight any fine imposed by UEFA. Some supporter groups have already begun investigating pursuing a court case against UEFA for discriminating against the Palestinian national flag.
Out on the football field an impressive 5-2 home win for Celtic and a nerve wracking 2-0 loss in Israel ensured advancement to the group stage of the Champions League. Hapoel Be’er Sheva had to be satisfied with a place in the Europa League alongside another Israeli team, Macabbi Tel Aviv. The two Israeli teams will now be playing in 6 different European countries. The Israeli propaganda machine, its foreign office and embassies around the world are no doubt working feverishly to prevent supporters in other clubs from following Celtic’s inspirational example. It is probably already too late.
Two days after the Celtic game, the Israeli team Beitar Jerusalem, known for its anti-Palestinian racism, were confronted with dozens of Palestinian flags during their match against St Etienne in France. The Israeli occupation and UEFA authorities have yet another headache to deal with.