Saturday 21 September 2019

Neil Francis: After the atrocities of Munich, Palestinian flag should not be flown at any sporting arena


Palestinian flags are waved on Hill 16 at Croke Park during an All-Ireland Senior Football Championship match earlier this year. Photo: INPHO
Palestinian flags are waved on Hill 16 at Croke Park during an All-Ireland Senior Football Championship match earlier this year. Photo: INPHO
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Dublin's win in the All-Ireland football final was satisfying on many levels. I think they will replicate their success again next season far more easily than their rugby confrères. I am not sure whether Joe Schmidt and Jim Gavin have ever met but they undoubtedly share the same DNA - same approach, same systems, same mental applications and the same work ethic.

Dublin's performances over the course of a match, I feel, are even better than Schmidt's in the sense that they seem to be able to sustain their relentless energy and ability to apply and deal with pressure and eventually burn off their opponents. Dublin are very difficult to overcome or subdue.

So all is well then? Well, yes if you happen to be a Dub. If you come from any of the other 31 counties this situation could go on for quite a while. How many choruses of 'come on yiz boys in blue' can you stomach?

Me? I am happy except for one thing, and it's a shade stronger than just a quibble. I didn't make it to Croker this year but, on a regular basis, the television cameras pick up the Palestinian flags in the mix on Hill 16 at nearly every match.

I figure quite a few Palestinian refugees have settled in this country. I find it difficult to believe, however, that they would have become attached to Gaelic football to the point that they stand on the Hill - or at any other ground - and bring along a Palestinian flag.

The last time I checked, this is a free country and a westernised democracy. We apparently have freedoms to do anything we want - within the law. If you want to fly a flag that is not blue on the Hill or one that most people at the ground wouldn't recognise then go ahead and knock yourself out.

Flags, however, do represent and signify something. They represent somebody or something. Culture, identity and ideology. Most people on the Hill fly a flag with two shades of blue which means they are Dublin people supporting their county in the All-Ireland. Why on earth are people bringing Palestinian flags to Croke Park? Surely flying a flag at a sporting occasion would not really mean that much? I mean, how significant could it be, what could a mere flag represent?

Flags have meaning; they have significance. For anyone to fly a Palestinian flag in this country out of some sense of solidarity with Palestine is up to their conscience, but flying one at a sporting event is a perversity and I strongly object to its continued practice.

As a precursor to what I am about to write, I wish to state that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict comes very far down my list in terms of time that I spend even thinking about it. That situation came about from the greatest upheaval in human history (World War II). The clean-up and solutions to relocation of displaced people was handled badly by the British and Americans and there were inequities and injustice on all sides.

The conflict in the Middle East is virtually intractable and in 500 years there may still be the same litany of human tragedy and continuous atrocity between the two protagonists - one side taking the other into further oblivion and the degeneracy of the human spirit, each as bad as the other. Israel has imposed a constitution of segregation in the region.

I was in Munich last month. It's a beautiful city and, while there, I went to visit the Olympic Stadium, where the 1972 Games were staged.

When the stadium tour was over I felt compelled to cross the bridge and go over to what was the athletes' village but is now just a block of apartments. There is a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes and one German policeman butchered at the Munich Olympics. The memorial is a little less sombre a place than you would imagine, with a video loop of the when, where and how.

The why? Well, maybe some perspective here would help.

Despite our hazy memories about the world being a much simpler place, it was anything but in 1972. The degree of complexity is such that a short article like this wouldn't even trek into the foothills of an explanation. The world was, as usual, at war with itself. Wars start for many reasons - land, ideology, religion, racism, hatred or despotic ambition. The Palestinians were at it on a number of fronts, but mainly with Israel. The Lebanon and Syria also found themselves in that theatre as well.

But, in the scheme of things, it was small fry. The Vietnam War was at its height. There was war in Cambodia and Laos. There was conflict in South America and Africa. The Hutus and Tutsis were at it in 1972 too - and by 'at it', I mean full-scale genocide with a death toll of well into the hundreds of thousands. In terms of scale, inhumanity or injustice, it made the Middle East look like a picnic, as indeed did Vietnam.

But the Palestinian terrorists chose to engage in a campaign of murder, assassination and bombing all over Europe and, in September 1972, they brought the pitch of human depravity to a new level.

When you are willing to murder or even lose your own life for a cause, then nothing is off limits or sacrosanct. The Olympics, a celebration of humanity, were, as the nice people in the IRA would say, a legitimate target. And the soft target of an Israeli Olympic team in a soft security environment was, well, too obvious and as it proved too tempting. Yasser Arafat sanctioned the attack and one of the worst chapters in the history of sport unfolded in front of a disbelieving and horrified world.

The Israeli team were vulnerable at their complex at 31 Connolly Strasse, behind a risible six-foot steel net fence. Right in the middle of the Games, eight guerrillas from the Black September terror group vaulted the fence with the help of some drunken American athletes. They had murder on their mind.

That week, the waif-like Russian gymnast Olga Korbut had dazzled the world with her grace, style, femininity and joie de vivre as she mesmerised with her spirit and humanity. Days later, murdering scum broke into the Israeli athletes' compound and burst through their dormitory doors. Moshe Weinberg just happened to be in the corridor and the wrestling coach was the first to be ruthlessly dispatched. He was murdered in a hail of bullets as he tried to resist. The previous week he had sworn the Olympic oath in a sea of optimism and human harmony ". . . in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams . . ."

Weightlifter Yossef Romano put up stern resistance but an unarmed athlete against murderers armed with machine guns had no chance. Romano too was riddled in a hail of bullets but was still alive. He was castrated by the terrorists and bled out nine hours later. A truly dreadful death for anyone to endure. Romano was a middleweight weightlifter and had not the remotest chance of winning a medal but he was there in the Olympic spirit to take part. The Palestinian terror group let him die slowly in agony.

Just the previous day Mark Spitz, an icon of the 1972 Olympics, a charismatic personality and a winner of seven gold medals in the swimming pool, was presented with his seventh gold medal. His performances were imperious.

Spitz, an American Jew, was one of the greatest Olympians of all time and what a hostage he could have been. He was hurried on a plane to London and then straight home to America.

Who else had these terrorists planned to kill? Who knew what else they had planned?

They took hostages. And before the Israeli Olympians were butchered at the botched rescue attempt at the Furstenfeldbruck airfield, they were subjected to torture and brutalised. This was established at post-mortem. Most of the team had broken bones which were not as a result of the machine gun fire or grenades used to murder them.

Palestinian flags at any sporting event? Kind of incongruous, don't you think?

The whole world was aghast, horrified that anyone could do such a thing in the name of any cause. Condemnation came from all over the world, except from one quarter.

Three of the eight terrorists survived the bloodshed at Furstenfeldbruck airfield and were held in prison in Germany. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) implicitly told the German government that there would be murders and bombings every week in German cities and towns if the three terrorists were not released. A 'hijack' of a Lufthansa aircraft (a ready-up) precipitated a swift release and all three were returned safe and sound to their homeland.

Any notion that these people had acted as a lone lunatic fringe terror cell operating on their own connivance was dispelled when one and a half million people welcomed them home as heroes. The terrorists, fresh from their despicable acts, were greeted much like successful Olympic athletes who do a lap of honour with their national flag. They had their own Palestinian flag draped across their shoulders - a rich irony. It was a signal of endorsement from the state of Palestine and its people agreeing with their actions.

The main thrust of this piece is that purely, as a sportsperson, I found a line was crossed at the Olympics in 1972. Murdering innocent athletes at any games is unforgivable. I find it reprehensible that anyone would fly a Palestinian flag at any sporting event given what happened and how the Palestinian people supported the actions of those terrorists.

The people who fly these flags at sports events in this country only have recourse to their own conscience for their actions. Having Palestinian flags flown over our own City Hall by elected representatives purporting to represent the views of all the people of Dublin - well that is another matter altogether.

Gaza and the West Bank are ruled by Fatah and Hamas. Effectively those lands are run by terrorist governments that fund and organise murder on a daily basis, including it must be said, their own people. Some of the things Israel gets up to are just as bad. However it is an unspeakable evil when 12-year-old boys, 16-year-old girls and Down syndrome adolescents are sent into crowded streets with bombs attached to their body.

The litany of terrorist attacks by Palestinian state-sponsored bodies goes on to this day. The Ma'alot massacre, where 22 young children were mercilessly executed by Palestinian terrorists and 68 badly injured in their school, is one that stands out.

How can anyone in good conscience fly that flag over our city? Who are these people who hoist these flags in our capital in our name?

At the recent Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park, I was astonished to see yet another Palestinian flag being waved with gusto, presumably by a Christian, unless he or she went just to wave the flag.

That person could not be unaware of the genocide of the Christian people in the Middle East. In Syria, for instance, the Christian population have been practically wiped out. In the 1960s and '70s, Palestine had a strong Christian minority. It is now down to a small percentage. What has happened to them? Where have they gone? Why have they gone? Is it all down to Israeli oppression?

Palestine has become a de facto Muslim state. What about women's rights there? What is it like to be LGBT in Palestine? How did all the Christians attending the Pope's Mass in the Phoenix Park view Palestinian flags being waved maniacally at the event?

Why would somebody bring a Palestinian flag to an event in Ireland being hosted by the leader of the largest Christian sect in the world?

As a sportsperson, I think I have made my position clear. As a citizen of Ireland living in Dublin, a city with a huge housing crisis, a massive drugs problem, a spiralling crime rate, continuous gridlock and a huge infrastructural deficit, is it not ever so slightly bizarre that Dublin city councillors are spending their time, energy and taxpayers' money on a proxy war that is thousands of miles away, and a place that has shown itself capable of appalling acts of terrorism and murder for the last 70 years . . . Or am I missing something?

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