LONDONDERRY and BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The Bogside neighborhood is where Northern Ireland’s brutal sectarian war began in the late 1960s. Visitors photographing the murals that glorify hooded paramilitaries, though, might be excused for thinking another conflict is preoccupying the Catholic residents of this shabby gray estate.
Here, the Irish tricolor jostles for space with that of another one: the Palestinian flag. Placards decry the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. “Solidarity with Palestine!” screams a freshly painted mural outside a local pub. Maps nestled in the corners of pro-Palestinian murals inform the public that in Palestine, like in Ireland, there can be only one state.
Between 1969 and 1998, Northern Irish society was torn apart as rival paramilitaries — representing the Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant British Unionists — fought over wanting the territory to be united with the Republic of Ireland or remain as part of the United Kingdom, as it had been since the island was partitioned in 1921.
The Northern Ireland conflict (aka The Troubles) killed over 3,500 people, including some 1,800 civilians, and the country remains bitterly divided along sectarian lines. Londonderry, the country’s second largest city, is a place so divided it has two names: Catholics drop the “London” prefix that is the official British name for the city.
Symbolic displays of identity aggressively broadcast the divides between nationalist and unionist streets here. Positions adopted by hard-liners in one community are automatically opposed in a knee-jerk way by the other.
The Museum of Free Derry, which commemorates the period when paramilitaries carved out a semi-autonomous “statelet” in the Bogside, is dominated from the outside by a huge Palestinian flag. Museum manager Adrian Kerr explains that “people from a nationalist background in Ireland see a similarity with other struggles against oppression.”
Traveling around nationalist estates in Londonderry, Belfast and elsewhere, visitors can see a panoply of flags hanging from lampposts, windows or painted on walls: Basque, Catalan, Cuban, Aboriginal Australian. But the most common non-Irish flags and symbols, by far, are Palestinian ones.
Kerr says his museum decided to drape itself in Palestinian flags during last year’s Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip, when thousands of Palestinians staged weekly protests along the border. At its peak, in May 2018, when the Americans marked the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, over 60 Palestinians were killed in one day. “We saw the violence there,” says Kerr, and “it led to an emotional reaction.”
He believes the feelings of solidarity shared between Northern Ireland and the Palestinians runs deeper than other relations. “Just look at the history,” says Kerr. “Israel-Palestine was a British partition; Ireland was a British partition.”
Londonderry is 75 percent Catholic (according to the 2011 U.K. census), but there is one Protestant enclave on the west bank of the city’s River Foyle: the Fountain estate. Hidden behind reinforced steel barriers, a single street winds through this tightly packed housing that was once home to over 10,000 Protestants but now houses about 250. At its entrance, the mantra of Unionist Londonderry is there for all to see: “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists Still Under Siege: No Surrender.”
Further down the street, a mural reminds passersby that there is a Protestant community around the world and that they are not alone. For generations, religious leaders told Ulster’s loyalists that this was their “promised land” and they its chosen people.
A bond is formed
Pro-Palestinian solidarity among Irish Republicans dates back to the late ’70s when the main paramilitary groups — the Irish Republican Army and the communist Irish National Liberation Army — established ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization. They began to cultivate links and comparisons with other anti-imperialist struggles internationally, as younger recruits pushed Republicanism further left and began seeking weapons, training and advice on how to wage a long-term war of attrition with British security forces.
Palestine was the subject of the first Northern Irish mural to express solidarity with a foreign struggle: Painted on West Belfast’s Beechmount Avenue in 1982, it showed masked IRA and PLO fighters jointly gripping a Soviet RPG. (At the time, the street was known locally as “RPG Ave.” due to the frequency of rocket-propelled grenades being launched at British soldiers from the Republican stronghold.)
The murals, flags and symbols that mark many Republican neighborhoods are the legacy of that period. In the eyes of some observers, these symbolic displays of identity have actually intensified since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, which officially brought peace to Northern Ireland. “It is the struggle being continued in a different way,” says Kerr. “People use their flags to mark their territory.”
Prof. Adrian Guelke from Queen’s University Belfast concurs. Palestinian and Israeli flags are “being used to fight local battles,” he says. “They are a way of expressing antagonism toward the other community.”
The visible presence of Israeli flags in Unionist communities is a more recent phenomenon, the Stars of David first appearing in Belfast in 2002. The 9/11 terror attack on the United States by Islamic extremists “led Unionists to think that [then-Prime Minister] Tony Blair ought to be putting the boot in,” explains Guelke, 72. “They found a great example for their view with [Israel’s hawkish then-Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon. They were signaling that they preferred Sharon’s approach to Blair’s.” Since then, he says, “there is an idealization of Israel” among loyalists.
That sympathy was rooted in the Unionist belief that loyalists were fighting a front in the War on Terror. Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed themselves in terms of fighting for human rights and against imperialism.
Israeli flags are still visible in Belfast’s Unionist communities. Off the predominantly loyalist Shankill Road in the west of the city, a few tattered blue and white flags flutter — the remnants of the last wave of pro-Israel solidarity during 2014’s Gaza war.
Since then, Guelke explains, some of “those things have gone off the boil” because “there is no obvious point Unionists would be trying to make to the British government at the moment that would involve Israel. It comes and goes.” He pauses before clarifying: “Israel is not involved in Brexit.” (Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union by 56 to 44 percent, with a heavily sectarian split, and is at the center of one of Brexit’s biggest problems: How to stop a hard Irish border returning once the United Kingdom eventually leaves the EU.)
“On the nationalist side, they will express the view that Israel is a settler-colonial project,” says Steven Jaffe, 54, the Belfast-born, London-based Jewish co-chair of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel — an organization that seeks to deepen understanding and ties with Israel in Northern Ireland. This reflects their belief “that their own community has been displaced by a settler-colonial project,” he explains. Conversely, within Unionist politics, there is a perception of a shared interest with a state “besieged” by hostile forces and which is “misunderstood” internationally.
Northern Ireland’s main Unionist party is the Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 lawmakers worked alongside the outgoing Conservative Party at Westminster. Over the years, the DUP has become Israel’s most prominent and vocal parliamentary support group. One explanation can be found in the party’s strong evangelical Christian base, says Jaffe. “This Christian element is stronger in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom,” he says, adding that it mirrors the support Israel receives from the overwhelming majority of evangelicals in the United States.
The withdrawal of the DUP’s support for the Conservatives — amid Unionist recriminations that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal “sells out” Northern Ireland’s place in the Union — could, just as in 2002, once again open up the space for more visible identification with Israel in Unionist communities.
Writing on the wall
Anyone who visited Belfast during the Troubles could not fail to be impressed by the capital’s revival over the past decade or so, with billions of euros of European money being invested in the capital.
However, some things never change — like the republican heartland on the Falls Road. It is here you will find the International Wall, one of about 40 walls (aka the ironically titled peace lines) that to this day separate the city’s Catholic and Protestant communities.
This particular wall (actually found on Divis Street) is the “ground-zero” for Republican international solidarity: Irish and Palestinian comrades grip hands from behind prison bars; PLO and IRA fighters squat with their AK-47s; and manifestos demand that Dublin boycott Israel. The overwhelming message here: Our struggle continues.
Walk up the Republican Divis Street and onto loyalist Northumberland Street, though, and a very different fighter greets you: A saluting female Israel Defense Forces soldier, an Israeli flag next to her and a quote by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beneath her, declaring that “in all of Jewish history we have never had a Christian friend as understanding and devoted.” Information panels tell the story of how the Israeli army was, through the Jewish Brigades, partially a Protestant creation. The overwhelming message here: We salute you.
These political murals dot Belfast’s streets, the fighter changing as the message is filtered through sectarian eyes. They are self-regarding displays of affection, sustaining a memory of struggle and radicalism that has been frozen on the streets of Northern Ireland.
Not every political message is painted on a wall, however. Since 2012, Gael Force Art — which describes itself as a West Belfast (i.e. Republican) radical collective — has climbed the Black Mountains overlooking Belfast no fewer than four times to unveil huge messages and flags in solidarity with Palestine. The most recent came in August when the Israeli national soccer team played a friendly against Northern Ireland in the capital: A 200 x 65 foot (60 x 20 meter) display read “Free Palestine,” accompanied by a giant Palestinian flag and the hashtag #BDS.
One of its collective’s artists, Risteard Ó Murchú, 50, recalls that he first took a strong interest in the Palestinian cause in the late ’80s. “It looked very similar to what I was experiencing here,” he says.
After spending some time behind bars in the ’90s, he subsequently became involved in Republican art. However, he worries now that “there are not many young people coming through with that [same] radical activism. Flags are reactive — and that’s as far as many will go.”
Another religious community
Northern Ireland may be synonymous with clashing Christians, but the country also has a tiny Jewish population and one working synagogue. (The country is also home to small Muslim and Hindu communities.)
Jews, predominantly from Germany, started moving to Belfast in the 1860s, attracted by the city’s thriving rag trade (it was often referred to as “Linenopolis” in the 19th century). Today, you will find the country’s sole surviving shul tucked away down a side street in a middle-class suburb of north Belfast.
From a peak of about 1,500 Jews in the last century, the number has now dwindled to an estimated 340. And because the community’s numbers are so small, Northern Ireland’s Jews are often an afterthought — if thought of at all — in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Michael Black, 72, is chairman of the Belfast Jewish Community. For him, the ostentatious displays of Palestinian flags make him “uncomfortable” — but they are not his primary concern.
“Belfast was good to the Jews,” he tells Haaretz. “Today, there are so few of us left.” The Belfast congregation has shrunk to fewer than 70 members. “It’s only a matter of time,” he says wistfully.
Michael’s younger brother, Tony, who until now has been cracking jokes by his side, believes the Palestinian issue is more serious. “We do have a wee bit of protection — but the police keep an eye out for us,” the 70-year-old says. He notes about the pro-Palestinian activists: “I’m sure none of them have ever been to Israel.” Sloganeering on Israel-Palestine has caused the Jewish community problems, they both agree.
Belfast’s Jews have suffered their share of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, often when tensions flare in the Gaza Strip. In 2016, the Jewish section of a disused cemetery off the Falls Road was horrifically desecrated. The synagogue and its former rabbi, David Singer, have been on the receiving end of anti-Semitic abuse online, and the shul’s windows have been repeatedly smashed. There have been no arrests in any of the cases.
This spring, Israeli writer Tuvia Tenenbom released a video online in which two men were heard making virulently anti-Semitic comments at a bar in Londonderry. Politicians from all sides of the spectrum were quick to condemn the incident, with DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeting: “The small Jewish community in Northern Ireland will always have my support and that of all right thinking people.”
Still, there are a few rays of hope to be found here concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nonprofits such as the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (set up in 1988 to promote dialogue between the two sides) and London-based Forward Thinking (which works to promote a more inclusive peace process in the Middle East) have funded trips for Israeli researchers to visit Northern Ireland and learn from its peace process. Forward Thinking even set up unlikely meetings in June 2016 between the right-wing Israeli Likud party and left-wing, Republican Sinn Féin, despite an outcry from pro-Palestinian activists and Sinn Féin supporters.
Many in Northern Ireland would prefer to move on from discussions of sectarianism, wherever it is happening in the world. Having discussed the “mess” of local politics, for example, the Black brothers are much more excited to describe their love of golf (a sport at which Northern Ireland excels). “Our golf club was once very Waspy — but we’ve had four Jewish captains now,” says Tony, laughing.