Should Dundee City Council continue to fly the Palestine flag?

The history of twinning between Dundee and the Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus dates back to June 1980 when the mayor of Nablus Bassam Shaka’a was the target of an Israeli terrorist gang’s car bomb.

He lost his legs and travelled from the West Bank to the UK to be fitted with prosthetic limbs.

Trade union links had existed between Dundee and Palestine for a while.

But when Dundee Labour councillor Colin Rennie, Ernie Ross MP and a certain young Dundee politician George Galloway met up with Bassam Shaka’a in London, it was suggested that a formal twinning should be established.

On November 27 1980, the decision to twin with Nablus was passed by the then Dundee District Council in the face of considerable opposition.

Dundee’s Jewish community opposed the twinning because it was perceived as a vehicle for promoting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) which, it argued, was a terrorist organisation devoted to the destruction of the state of Israel.

Mary McGregor (right), convener of the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association, with former Nablus mayor Bassam Shaka’a (who died in 2019), his wife and son and the then serving mayor of Nablus, Aldy Yaish, taken a few years ago on a visit to Nablus. Image: Mary McGregor

Two weeks later, the Nablus mayor came to Dundee where Lord Provost Jim Gowans, Ernie Ross MP and a group of students welcomed him.

By December 1980, the Palestinian flag was flying in Dundee.

In 1993, the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association (DNTA) was established with its main aim being to build friendship and understanding between the people of Dundee and Nablus.

That’s taken various forms over the last 31 years, from cultural exchanges and visits to the donation of a fire engine.

During the summer months, the Palestinian flag still flies above the Caird Hall alongside the flags of other twin city nations. It’s due to return at the end of March.

Palestine flag (left) flying over Dundee’s Caird Hall a few years ago.

But following the horrific Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, and with ongoing Israeli military action leading to an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, should Dundee City Council also fly the Palestine flag from the city chambers balcony to show solidarity with Nablus? Is there a case for flying the Israeli flag in solidarity with the victims of Hamas?

Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association ‘forever hopeful’ of a flag-flying decision

Mary McGregor, 67, convener of the DNTA, says that since October 7, a “number of requests” have been made to Dundee City Council to fly the Palestinian flag from the balcony.

This includes a petition handed in last week by the Dundee Palestine Solidarity Campaign, signed by around 500.

Flying the Palestinian flag would be on a par with the flying of the Ukraine flag in solidarity with the people of Ukraine following the full Russian invasion on February 24 2022, she claims.

However, while she’s been “forever hopeful”, Dundee City Council officials say it won’t happen.

Mary McGregor of the Dundee Nablus Twinning Association with Michael Taylor at the pro-Palestinian rally held in Dundee’s City Square on Saturday March 2. Image: Paul Reid.

“If you look at the balcony at the moment, the Ukrainian flag is flying – which is perfectly understandable and justified,” said Mary, 67, who was the first female leader of Dundee District Council in the late 1980s.

The Ukraine flag flying from the balcony at Dundee City Chambers. Should the Palestine flag be there too? Image: Alan Richardson

“It’s flying, not because we are twinned with anywhere in Ukraine, but because it’s the right thing to do and to show solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees in the city.

“We are saying please fly the Palestinian flag, not just because we are twinned with Nablus, but to show solidarity with what’s happening there at the moment, and we are talking about what’s happening to civilians both in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Why and when did Mary McGregor start to support the Palestinian cause in Dundee?

Mary, who has always been a supporter of the “oppressed”, joined Friends of Palestine during Fresher’s Week when she arrived at Dundee University in 1975.

She has been a supporter of the Palestinian cause ever since.

She’s been actively involved with DNTA since she retired from her job as an English and guidance teacher at Webster’s High School, Kirriemuir, visiting Nablus three times.

In Dundee, there are a number of people from Gaza living in the city, she said, including university students here on humanitarian scholarships.

Pictured in 2015 at the unveiling of the naming of Nablus Avenue in the Dundee Medipark, south of the circle at the end of Tom McDonald Avenue are some of the members of Action Palestine Dundee University. Pictured (front) Jalal Abukhater and back (left to right) Eilidh Wilson, Kieran Wilson and Stephen Cunningham. Image: DC Thomson

They are “absolutely terrified” about what’s happening at home.

Some have lost family members. Most of them have lost their homes.

Mary said flying the flag “just seems the right thing to do given this dreadful humanitarian crisis”.

She added: “I would condemn any war crimes wherever they take place by whoever they are committed.

“But what we are watching at the moment is the collective punishment of the Palestinian people – not Hamas.

Pro-Palestine rally in Dundee on Saturday March 2. Image: Paul Reid.

“We are watching bairns under rubble who have got nothing to do with Hamas, and it cannot be justified.”

Jewish student leader and editor backs calls for Palestine flag to be flown in Dundee

Final year Dundee University English and creative writing student Roshni Baillie, 22, is secretary of the Dundee Jewish Society which aims to provide a safe space for Jewish students to socialise.

Raised in a Jewish family in Dumfries and Galloway, Roshni said she’s found it “quite scary” being a Jewish person in the UK with anti-semitic attacks on the rise even before October 7.

While Roshni says she’s always felt “incredibly safe” in Dundee, she has experienced “name calling” elsewhere.

Final year Dundee University English and creative writing student Roshni Baillie, 22, secretary of the Dundee Jewish Society. Image: Roshni Baillie

Her family have asked her to stop wearing her Star of David necklace amid fears for her safety.

Given the history of Israel and the Jewish people, she understands why “the response by Israel was the way it was”.

She says views on Gaza tend to be a “generational thing”.

Those with family closer to Israel tend to be more supportive of Israeli government actions.

Yet despite her Jewish roots, Roshni feels the response from Israel against Gaza has been “disproportionate”.

For the sake of humanity, she is backing calls for the flying of the Palestinian flag from Dundee city chambers – but she doesn’t think it would be helpful to fly the Israeli flag.

Pro-Palestine rally in Dundee city centre on Saturday March 2. Image: Paul Reid

“From my perspective there’s this long-standing relationship that Dundee has with Palestine,” said Roshni, who is also editor-in-chief of the Dundee University student-run newspaper, The Magdalen Magazine.

“I think that flying the flag isn’t condoning the actions of Hamas or anything, so I don’t see why flying it would be a problem.

“There are people suffering, so if this is something that’s even going to help the people in Dundee feel more supported then it can’t be a bad thing.

“I think younger more left-leaning Jewish people have the same sort of views that I do.”

Paul Spicker, chairman of the Tayside and Fife Jewish Community (formerly known as the Dundee Hebrew Congregation), would not be drawn directly on the flag issue.

However, he warned against any actions that inflamed tensions.

He said: “The vocal and often aggressive support for terrorism directed at Jews has been deeply distressing to members of the Jewish community.

“Whenever there is conflict in the Middle East, there are attacks on Jewish people.

“We have no direct part in this dispute, and ask people to refrain from conduct which may be seen as bullying or intimidating.”

Dundee City Council will ‘not politicise or take sides in complex matter’

Dundee City Council said in a statement that the custom and practice of the council is to fly the Union Flag and the Saltire, along with flags symbolising the city’s twinning relationships on the Caird Hall.

Dundee has a twinning relationship with Orleans in France, Wurzburg in Germany, Nablus in Palestine and Alexandria in the United States of America, therefore the flags of France, Germany, Palestine and the USA are flown for that purpose.

A city council spokesperson said: “The city does not have a twinning relationship with a town or city in Israel, hence the flag of Israel is not flown.

“In April 2021 the council supported a call to recognise the State of Palestine, a decision which was communicated to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the prime minister and the first minister.

Mary McGregor of Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association on a visit to Nablus. Image: Mary McGregor

“No flags are flown on the Caird Hall between the last Sunday in October and the last Sunday in March in the interests of public safety and to prevent damage to flags during the winter months.

“Elected members and officers of Dundee City Council united in observing a minute’s silence on Monday, October 23 2023 for everyone affected, both at home and abroad, by the current events in Israel and in Palestine.

“The council’s sympathies and thoughts are with all of those who suffer, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian, and the council will not politicise or take sides in this complex matter.

“Therefore, there is no intention to fly the flag of Israel or the flag of Palestine in connection with the current conflict.”

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