'Celtic are Palestine, Rangers are Israel': How Middle East politics bled into Scottish football

Illustration - In-depth - Celtic/Palestine
11 min read
15 December, 2022
In-depth: The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers has been rooted in history and religion, yet Middle East politics have also shown to be a key symbol of both clubs' identities.

Several years ago, Scottish officials sought to cool tensions between Celtic and Rangers fans during Glasgow's highly-charged Old Firm derby by banning perceived symbols of sectarian identity. 

Celtic supporters, the city's Catholic club, were ordered not to fly the Irish tricolour while Rangers, the Protestant team, were told not to display the Union Flag. 

Security managed to prevent such paraphernalia from entering the stadium, but fans found an ingenious way of circumventing the restrictions to proudly parade their political and religious affiliations. 

As kick-off commenced, the Rangers' stands transformed into a sea of blue and white of the Israeli flag, a country linked to Unionism in Northern Ireland, while at the Celtic end, thousands of Palestinian flags were raised, a cause long-associated with Irish Republicanism.

"The Old Firm rivalry thrives on dividing lines and these can be global as well as local"

Old Firm rivalry

The story, shared by thousands of people at pubs and football matches, is fake, perhaps romanticising the perceived tribalism of Scottish football and the political consciousness of working-class fans at Glasgow's two biggest clubs (non-aligned Patrick Thistle is often described as the city's atheist team).

Yet the tale does contain a kernel of truth. A typical Rangers fan would likely lean toward Israel during a debate on the Middle East while the odds are that a Celtic supporter stopped on the street would sympathise with Palestinians, although neither is likely to log onto The New Arab first thing in the morning.

"The reason you can tell that story is fake is because the Scottish FA would never ban the Union flag," jokes Sam Hamad, a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies, and a Celtic supporter.

The idea that Scottish football fans are as committed and informed on geopolitics as struggles at home is of course an exaggeration, yet there is a thread linking Glasgow to Jerusalem, via Northern Ireland. 

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Glaswegians of both Christian denominations often have familial ties to Belfast and Derry/Londonderry and it is one of the factors for the intense rivalries between the two clubs, which is occasionally articulated via the situation in Palestine-Israel.

Celtic fans have raised the Palestinian flag at games as a show of solidarity while the occasional Israeli flag can be spotted at Ibrox Park.

"It's not like every second Celtic fan is flying a Palestinian flag, it is mostly at a certain section of Celtic Park associated with the Celtic Ultras, The Green Brigade… who have an inherent anti-imperialist quality."

How Israel and Palestine bled into Scottish football
Palestinian flags are waved by fans during the UEFA Champions League Play-off First leg match between Celtic and Hapoel Beer-Sheva at Celtic Park on 17 August 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. [Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images]

Palestinian solidarity

In 2016 when Celtic faced Israeli side Hapoel Beer Sheva at home - and this actually happened - the North Curve, home of the Green Brigade, was awash with dozens of Palestinian flags.

Fans made similar gestures during the Israeli assaults on Gaza and the occupied West Bank, highlighting the deep sense of affinity Celtic fans have with the Palestinian cause.

"The people of Irish identity in Scotland have a real connection to the north of Ireland, and the Irish Republican movement came to represent people, Celts if you like, sticking up for themselves," said Hamad.

"So in the 1970s, when Irish Republicans began to pay interest to the Palestinian cause - with quite strong links to the PLO - this bled out into Celtic. They both see in themselves movements for indigenous autonomy against powerful states."

Such pro-Palestine gestures by The Green Brigade have resulted in Celtic being fined thousands of pounds by European football's governing body, UEFA, for breaking Article 16 by displaying "provocative banner(s)".

"Modern Scottish nationalism was born from opposition to the union (between Scotland and England) and that gave Scottish nationalism an inherent anti-imperialism, which lends itself to support for the Palestinian cause"

The club paid a £9,000 penalty after the Hapoel Beer Sheva incident, which Celtic fans responded to by raising £130,000 for Palestinian charities.

One of the groups that benefited from The Green Brigade's solidarity act was Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), an NGO that continues to receive support from Celtic fans.

"We hugely appreciate the support of Celtic fans, which helps us continue delivering our much-needed medical aid to Palestinians," Aisha Mansour, MAP's West Bank director, told The New Arab.

"We rely heavily on donations from individuals and groups, and we are grateful for this incredible support."

In a bid to avoid further penalties by UEFA, Celtic FC officials foiled one attempt by members of The Green Brigade to lay out dozens of Palestinian flags at the North Curve the evening before captain Scott Brown's final match for the club in 2021.

Celtic FC and The Green Brigade did not respond to emails on this issue.

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Scottish concerns

While The Green Brigade has been vocal in their support for the Palestinian cause, political commentary more commonly touches on local issues.

Celtic fans have raised tifos welcoming refugees to Scotland and placards slamming Conservative government policies. They also regularly raise money for local causes in Scotland, making them not only the most left-wing club in the UK but probably the most charitable.

This year, The Green Brigade Food Drive raised nearly £60,000 and seven vans full of food.

Hamad said that Celtic's founding 135-years-ago by Irish immigrants has given the fans a genuine affinity with the poor and dispossessed whether in Scotland or Palestine.

Celtic FC's non-sectarian policy and widespread socialist sentiments have also attracted fans from minority groups, in a way Rangers - with its heady displays of British Unionism and love of 'the Crown' - might not.

Palestinian Mural Covers Northern Ireland Wal
A girl walks past a portion of a mural on Falls Road on 20 August 2002 in west Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Getty]

"Some of our most famous players have been Protestants, we have Muslim fans, we have Jewish fans, we have never had a sectarian policy. Unlike Rangers, the club was always open to all players from all backgrounds," Hamad said.

There is little surprise that the Glasgow area was known as Red Clydeside and one of the few parts of the UK to elect Communist members of parliament. Today, the city is represented solely by seven Scottish National Party MPs, campaigning for independence for Scotland.

"Modern Scottish nationalism was born from opposition to the union (between Scotland and England) and that gave Scottish nationalism an inherent anti-imperialism, which lends itself to support for the Palestinian cause, the anti-Apartheid cause, which was really strong in Scotland," Hamad said. 

A recent YouGov poll found that around a quarter of the Scottish population's sympathies lie with Palestinians and only eight percent with Israel. This was only slightly above the average in England (apart from London) where, the vast majority - as in Scotland - stated "don't know" or that their sympathies lay with neither party.

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Ulster ties

Across the Irish Sea, the Unionist community is mostly descendants of English and Scottish plantation farmers and other immigrants who settled in 16th and 17th-century Ireland, creating a Protestant enclave on the island and tying Northern Ireland to the UK.

Sections of them have historically affiliated with Israel including via the British-Israelite tradition which was particularly strong among Evangelical and other Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.

This pseudo-scientific belief states that the British people are the descendants of the lost tribe of Israel and many tied their faith to a zeal of having Protestantism survive on the Catholic-majority island.

There is also the theory that the hexagram in the Ulster banner is actually a Star of David - which also forms the heart of the Israeli flag - and some Protestants continue to use this symbol to express their faith and identity.

When upheavals and famine hit Ireland in the 19th century, many Ulster-Scots joined Irish Catholics and packed their bags for Scotland's West Coast and Glasgow.

Daily Life In Belfast During COVID-19 Lockdown
A Rangers supporters' flag is seen next to a political mural in East Belfast on Monday 19 April 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

On both sides of the Irish Sea, the descendants of Ulster Scots became a bedrock of Rangers' support, many of whom raise Ulster, British, and occasionally Israeli flags at games against Celtic.

"There is a 'British-Israelite' tradition within Ulster Protestantism which has been much more influential on that community than is often understood and I think that feeds into attitudes within parts of the Rangers fanbase," said David Scott, director of Nil by Mouth, a charity working to end sectarianism in Scotland.

"Likewise at Celtic, you will have fans who equate the situation in the North with the Palestinian situation and wish to display solidarity with those they view as being historically wronged."

Today, Unionist parties have established strong ties with Israel including the late firebrand politician and preacher Ian Paisley who launched Northern Ireland Friends of Israel in 2009.

"There is a 'British-Israelite' tradition within Ulster Protestantism which has been much more influential on that community than is often understood and I think that feeds into attitudes within parts of the Rangers fanbase"

The group hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog, son of former President Chaim Herzog, at Stormont in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of his father's birth in Belfast.

Mayor of Craigavon Stephen Moutray, a member of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, explained the connection between Protestants on the island and Israel during a 2010 speech in Dublin.

"We as unionists in Northern Ireland can emphasise with the government and people of Israel as we know only too well what it is like to suffer injustice, to have our name blackened in the international community and to be misrepresented by the media," he said according to The Irish Times.

"That is why we are able to stand with Israel in her hour of need; to understand what the Israeli people are going through as they face the deadly threat of Hamas terrorism and the dark shadows of international contempt."

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Old Firm

The sectarian dimensions in Glasgow can be contrasted to the situation on Scotland's East Coast, which saw much lower levels of immigration from Northern Ireland.

Hibernian FC, like Celtic, in Edinburgh was founded by Irish immigrants but fierce local rivals Hearts' fanbase is generally made up of Scottish Protestants with no connection to the island.

It highlights the continued animosity that the political situation in Ireland brings to the Celtic vs Rangers rivalry.

"The Old Firm rivalry thrives on dividing lines and these can be global as well as local. Both clubs draw significant support from across the Irish Sea and over the decades there are numerous examples of elements within their respective fan bases rallying to their respective 'cause' and point of view as to the political situation and future of their neighbouring land mass," Scott told The New Arab. The Republic-Palestinian connection and Unionist association with Israel is also a driver in Old Firm games.

"There are sections of both supporters which associate themselves very clearly and visibly with states and political positions within the Middle East and Palestinian and Israeli flags can often be seen on display," Scott added.

"But I don’t think it would be correct to say they are 'picking sides' simply out of habit. There are latent sentiments at play here."

"The Irish people can see Palestinians going through very similar experiences to what we went through"

Sporting lessons

While the beautiful game has been a vector for the ugliest side of sectarianism in Scotland, sport is also being used to build bridges and dialogue between different communities.

Mark Ward, a Sinn Fein Teachta Dála (TD) for Dublin Mid-West, visited Ramallah earlier this year as part of a tour of young Irish boxers to the occupied West Bank.

"Palestine was a place I always wanted to see, and I never thought I would get the opportunity, and when it arose I took the lads up on the invitation. I thought the people were absolutely amazing there," he told The New Arab.

One Palestinian who runs a boxing gym in Ramallah, told the tour that the Palestinian people acknowledge Irish sympathy with their cause.

"He said it wasn't the Palestinian people who came to Ireland to ask for help, the Irish people just offered to help. The reason for that is we were also a people who were occupied for years, a country in conflict, thank God the military side of that conflict has ended and we are in the peace side of that and looking for a resolution," he said.

Ward said how one of the boxing coaches from Belfast recalled how the experiences of navigating the myriad Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks reminded him of the situation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics were constantly stopped, asked questions, and intimidated by British and local security forces, just for trying to go about their daily lives.

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"The Irish people can see Palestinians going through very similar experiences to what we went through," he said.

Ward hopes sport will help fix problems in the occupied territories and help Palestinians cope with their suffocating frustrations of life under occupation.

"Sport is the universal language, it is a language that crosses all political divides. Once you get onto the playing field - whether it's a boxing ring or a running track - you're there to compete on the same level as the person or team opposite you," he said.

"With all sports you might have a favourite, but it is unpredictable and anything can happen - whether that's Celtic on the football pitch or two lads in the boxing ring. Nobody knows the outcome and that's the beauty of sports, I think it has a great way of bringing people together, crossing political divides, and having people in the same space on the same terms."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin