UEFA, Respect and Israel-Palestine

By Doctor Michael Herron

The ongoing dispute between European football’s governing body UEFA and Glasgow Celtic supporter’s group, the Green Brigade, over the latter’s flying of Palestinian flags at a recent Champion’s League qualifier between Celtic and Israeli club Hapoel Be’er Sheva raises issues that go far beyond football.

The gist of the dispute is that UEFA have charged Celtic under one of their rules that prohibits “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.”

In anticipation of a fine being levied predicted to be around £15,000 the Green Brigade launched an appeal to raise money for two Palestinian charities, Medical Aid Palestine, which provides health and medical care to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the Lajee Centre, a sports and arts project in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.  By launching the appeal, the Green Brigade hoped to match the amount of the fine imposed by UEFA.  In fact, the Green Brigade have been successful in raising over £130,000 for the two charities.

Issues that arise from the controversy derive from the fact that as the Green Brigade stated UEFA has deemed the Palestinian flag to be an “illicit banner” and how this judgement poses questions for UEFA’s own “respect” agenda, its admirable campaign to remove racism from football.

To explain why UEFA’s two positions are contradictory it is first necessary to define what racism is.  As the Oxford Dictionary defines it as a “belief in the superiority of a particular race and an antagonism towards or discrimination against other races as a result of this [belief]”

Many academics, however, have generally moved away from using race as a category to define different groups of people because of its imprecision and have instead preferred to use ethnicity, which describes a social group having a common national or cultural tradition.

If one replaces race with ethnicity in the Dictionary definition one could argue that the Israeli state has exhibited racism towards the Palestinians by employing antagonistic and discriminatory policies on the basis of the Palestinians’ ethnicity that have gone from restrictions on travel, through arbitrary arrest and imprisonment to mass killing.

There are those who challenge the accusation that Israel operates a policy akin to apartheid given that Israeli Arabs have served as MPs in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.  This point is well taken, however, it does not alter the fact that Israel operates a discriminatory and punitive policy against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Recent discrimination against the Palestinians has a long history stretching back to the founding of the State of Israel.  Some of their supporters have even argued that they have been the victims of genocide.  This article will thus trace the history of these grievances and will argue that although a number of these crimes appear to approximate genocide, they instead fall under the more general crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The first depredations against the Palestinians occurred at the end of the British Mandate in Palestine, which a British colonial authority had administered up to 1948.  A UN Commission had drafted a report which recommended partition of Palestine, whereby territory would be divided between Arabs and Jews.  In anticipation of this partition both Arabs and Jews mobilised into armed groups to seize the land.  Unwilling to manage a deteriorating situation the British virtually allowed a state of civil war to exist in Palestine.

A number of atrocities were committed by both sides; however, Jewish groups were responsible for two particularly significant acts.  On !9th April 1948 two Jewish paramilitary groups, Irgun and Lehi joined forces to attack the village of Deir Yassin and massacred 250 Palestinians.  On 9th July of that year David Ben Gurion, future prime minister of Israel appeared to have ordered the expulsion of Palestinians from the towns of Lydda and Ramle, numbering 70,000.  These civilians were force marched in what became known as the Lydda Death March towards Ramallah and hundreds particularly children and old people died from the heat and thirst.  These events were accompanied by other expulsions which totalled between 300,000 and 400,000.

Some claim these events to be an example of genocide.  Indeed, the forced marching in the Lydda Death March has echoes of the forced marching of the Armenians during the First World War genocide.  The expulsion of 300,000 to 400,000, arguably, could at least be described as ethnic cleansing.  At this point it is important to define genocide, which is commonly interpreted as the intent by a state to destroy a national, ethnic or religious group in whole or part.  In this context, these atrocities were committed not by a state since the state of Israel did not exist yet, but by various armed Jewish groups and armies some of which were violently opposed to each other as well as to the Palestinians.  Although it does not diminish the seriousness of these acts, the lack of state involvement is crucial to how one defines these crimes, which one would have to define as war crimes.

Another event that has gone down in the litany of Palestinian grievances is that concerning the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982.  These massacres occurred in the context of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to drive the Palestinian armed organisation, the PLO, from the Israeli border.  According to TG Fraser, Israeli Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon, allowed the Christian Maronite paramilitary group, the Phalangists, into the camp to look for terrorists.  These camps had been left defenceless as PLO fighters had been evacuated from Beirut in the preceding weeks.  Before the Phalangists entered the camps, the camps were lit by flares fired by the Israeli army.  The Phalangists killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, which the Palestinians have numbered as 2,000 and the Israelis 800.

Although Israelis did not do the actual killing, Israeli authorities must bear some degree of responsibility for the crime, indeed a number of Israeli officers were punished.  However, Ariel Sharon largely avoided responsibility although as Defence Minister and having facilitated the Phalangists entry to the camps he must shoulder the burden of blame given that he must have anticipated what the Phalangists were likely to do once they entered the camps.  This was a war crime and a case was later filed against Sharon to this effect, which this article will return to.

The intifadas of the 1980s and 90s largely grew out of tensions arising from the settlement of the West Bank by Israeli settlers, which the Palestinians viewed as a land grab.  These intifadas, or uprisings witnessed scores of Palestinian demonstrators falling victim to live fire by Israeli troops.   These killings could also be described as war crimes.

The intifadas were then followed in 2014 by the Israeli invasion of Gaza in retaliation for the Islamic group, Hamas, firing rockets into Israel.  During this invasion Israeli forces targeted civilians and demolished Palestinian homes with bulldozers.  There are some who argue that this invasion was genocide.  However, this invasion could be viewed as collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza for supporting Hamas rather than the destruction of the group as such.  As stated previously genocide means the intent by a state to destroy a group in whole or part so that the group could not reconstitute itself.  Although the Palestinians as a group in this case were left largely intact the deliberate targeting of civilians by the Israeli military has to constitute a war crime.

There is a problem, however.  In order to be sanctioned by the UN, Israel would have to be subject to a UN Security Council Resolution.  In this context, Israel’s ultimate ally, the United States has used its veto to block any such resolution. There is a loophole though in that under Belgian law persons may be charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity regardless of the nationality of the victims or the accused.  In this context, in 2001, survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres brought war crimes charges against Ariel Sharon in Belgium while he was still Israeli prime minister.  However, the International Court of Justice later ruled that the Belgian court could not go ahead with the case since a foreign government minister enjoys diplomatic immunity.  Incidentally, this immunity may not extend to military personnel or former government ministers.

In conclusion, Israeli actions against Palestinians have far exceeded the normal definition of racism as antagonism or discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity.  It is laudable that UEFA has tried to eradicate racism in football but by defining the Palestinian flag as an “illicit banner” it has itself engaged in politics and has tacitly endorsed the racist policies of the Israeli state towards the Palestinians.  UEFA, of course, on its own, cannot force Israel to change these policies.  Only the permanent members of the UN Security Council, primarily the United States can end Israel’s virtual impunity and force it to face up to its responsibilities under international law.


Harriet Sherwood, Peter Beaumont “Celtic fans’ appeal raised £130,000 for Palestinian charities” The Guardian 24 August 2016

The Concise Oxford Dictionary Ninth Edition, Della Thompson (ed.) (London: BCA 1996)

Benny Morris The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge: 1987)

Michael Palumbo The Palestinian Catastrophe (London: 1987)

Robert Fisk Pity the Nation (London: 1990)

TG Fraser The Arab Israeli Conflict Basingstoke: palgrave macmillan, 1995)

Geoffrey Robertson QC Crimes Against Humanity (London: Penguin Books, 2012)

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