Palestinian flags in Derry and Sarajevo - solidarity through representation

Palestinian flags in Derry and Sarajevo – solidarity through representation

Victimhood is a powerful motivator of acts of solidarity. It is, therefore, more important than ever to understand and explain the role of symbols and slogans as political motivators in divided societies. Conflict transformation practitioners should not be scared of symbols, but rather of their interpretations. 

 Suggested Reading Collaborative Conflict Transformation GCCT

By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp

When I visited Northern Ireland recently, I was struck by the number of Palestinian flags flying over Catholic neighbourhoods in Belfast and Derry/London Derry. Those of us who teach and practice in the field of conflict and peace studies often talk about how social identities impact conflict processes. The presence of Palestinian flags in Catholic neighbourhoods is a great example of solidarity and association between groups that have an acquired/imposed victim identity.

There are two parallel and segregated communities in Northern Ireland.  Sixteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the Catholics in Northern Ireland continue feeling victimized.  The devolution of state powers to local communities helped create a sense of ownership in direct politics but it has failed to bring the two communities together.  There is a race to the bottom in Northern Ireland about who is more of a victim, while neither sees itself as the oppressor. It would be wrong to describe the Northern Irish conflict as a religious one. It is about sovereignty in classical terms, control of land and political power. Dating back to the Seventeenth Century, Ulster Plantation and imposed serfdom on Catholic Irish by Oliver Cromwell under Protestant landowners are the main sources of frustration for Catholics. The Great Famine of 1840s (which wiped out a million people and forced migration to North America) further exacerbated the animosity between the two communities. Following the independence of the Republic of Ireland in 1919 and partition in 1921, the Provincial IRA supported the training of the Zionist militant organization, Irgun, in British Occupied Palestine, but later changed its position in the late Sixties, showing solidarity with the PLO against colonial oppression. Ever since, the Catholics of Northern Ireland have been supporting the Palestinian cause. In contrast, Protestant neighborhoods are embracing Israeli flags in defiance against a perceived eventual domination of Catholics. It is relatively easier to understand how Catholics empathize with Palestinians – ruled by a perceived foreign force, Protestant England.  Protestants, former English and Scottish settlers, on the other hand, feel a sense of proximity to Israelis, with a perceived God-given claim to territory against the “terrorists”.

In another divided society some 2,000 km south of Belfast, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, political tensions between the two entities – Serb-controlled Republika Srpska, and the Bosniak-dominated Federation – continue to run high. In the Federation, following the start of the Israeli military campaign on Hamas-controlled Gaza last July and subsequent trickling of horrific images of children who lost their lives during the bombardments, hundreds of people held a non-violent protest against the war. Most of the participants were from the conservative citizens group, UG Svitanje, in Sarajevo, along with participants from the Palestinian Diaspora in Bosnia. This was meant to be a very symbolic act of solidarity by Sarajevo residents who had suffered terrible living conditions under almost four years of siege by Bosnian Serb forces. Contrastingly in Republika Srpska, the entity’s president, Milorad Dodik, voiced his unconditional support to Israel’s offensive on Gaza. Back in January 2009, when Israel conducted another offensive on Gaza, it was again Dodik, then Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska, who had sent a letter of support to Israel, citing the Republika Srpska as having nothing to do with the demonstrations in Sarajevo and his understanding of Israel’s concern for the safety and security of its citizens.  Similarly in November 2011, when a vote on the statehood of Palestinian Authority came to the UN Security Council floor, the Bosnian delegation withheld its political support. This decision was mainly due to the resistance of political leadership in Republika Srpska amidst Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat support for the Palestinian Authority.

Victimhood is indeed a powerful motivator of acts of solidarity. The political leadership in Banja Luka, very much like the Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, finds it easy to associate with Israel’s narrative on safety and security of its citizens. The idea of being surrounded by a perceived “barbaric Jihadist/terrorist majority” determined to put an end to the presence of “civilized, urban, western minority” remains a great sales pitch in ethno-politics. For that reason, it is more important than ever to understand and explain the role of symbols and slogans as political motivators in divided societies. Conflict transformation practitioners should not be scared of symbols, but rather of their interpretations.

Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.

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