The green, white and black Palestinian flag is hard to miss outside Eamonn O’Neill’s row house in Belfast.
It’s hanging next to his second-floor bedroom window and it’s the first thing anyone notices when they approach his front door. Across the street, several pro-Palestinian murals have been painted on one of the many peace walls that wind through Belfast. The murals have gone up alongside those dedicated to the Irish Republican Army and the nationalist movement in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve always been a supporter of the Palestinian people,” Mr. O’Neill said. Referring to Israel’s military assault on Gaza he added: “It’s a disgrace watching a country do that to another country. It’s inhuman.”
Belfast has long been one of the most divided cities in the world, and flags have always played a pivotal role in staking out turf. The green, white and orange banner of Ireland flies high in many republican neighbourhoods, while the Union Jack flutters in areas loyal to the British Crown.
The Israel-Hamas war has created a fresh source of disagreement and a new set of rival symbols: Palestinian flags in nationalist neighbourhoods, Israeli ones in unionist communities.
A few blocks from Mr. O’Neill’s house, Israel’s flag can be seen throughout the pro-British Shankill Road area. It stands alongside a British one at a memorial dedicated to Protestants who were killed by the IRA during the decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. Nearby, a freshly painted mural depicts solidarity with the Israeli army and carries the caption: “We salute you.”
“You have to support your own,” said Trevor Herron as he stood outside a home with an Israeli flag. Mr. Herron said the Shankill area, which used to have a thriving Jewish community, has long supported Israel. He’s proud that his neighbourhood is standing with Israel against Hamas.
“Now there’s kind of a competitive element to the flags,” said Andrew White a senior lecturer in culture, media and creative industries at King’s College London.
Nationalists in Northern Ireland have been sympathetic to the Palestinians cause for decades, he said, and they see the conflict with Israel as a fight over decolonization similar to theirs. “In the case of Ireland, and especially as far as republicans are concerned, the fact that Britain was involved in the partitioning of Palestine and of Ireland amplifies the feelings towards the present situation in Israel.”
The current war has heightened that sense of injustice. One recently painted mural across from Mr. O’Neill’s house shows a Palestinian mother cooking on an open fire while her children look out from a tent. Another portrays two arms shaking hands through prison bars – one clad in green, white and orange for Ireland, the other in the Palestinian colours of black, white and green.
For unionists, support for Israel had been more complex and less effusive before the Hamas attacks in October, Dr. White said. Part of their support stems from evangelical Christians, who have a deep religious connection to Israel as the Biblical Holy Land. There’s also a desire among some unionists to link republicans with Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had ties to the IRA in the 1980s. “From the loyalists’ perspective, they would probably see it as, these people are separatists and terrorists, and the state should deal with them robustly in the way the Israeli military is,” he said.
Some of the flags now hanging in unionist areas incorporate the Star of David with the Union Jack. “We support them,” said Linda Hamilton, who put up one of the combined Israel-U.K. banners outside her house near Shankill Road. “It’s our country and it’s their country.”
The deep division has spilled over into local politics. Belfast’s city council has held several heated debates in recent weeks over motions to support the Palestinian people. Last November, nationalist Sinn Fein councillors backed a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel. The party wanted “to show that Belfast is against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the illegal settlements, occupation and apartheid,” Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie told the meeting.
Unionist councillors opposed the motion, and said Israel had a right to defend itself after Hamas-led fighters killed 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 and took more than 200 people hostage. “Israel is not an occupying power, in spite of the attempt at historical revisionism tonight,” said Dean McCullough, a councillor for the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party. The motion “will have no impact in Israel. However it will have an adverse impact on community relations across this city.”
Tom Kelleher, 73, lived through the Troubles. He sees the same kind of senseless killing that marked those times now taking place in Israel and Gaza. “All the young people that died, it’s such an injustice,” said Mr. Kelleher, as he took a photograph of a Palestinian mural on a peace wall. He supports the people of Gaza, abhors war and worries about the fate of humanity. “We’re only here for a very short period.” He sighed. “Let’s live and enjoy.”
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