EDINBURGH faces a business and tourism backlash over a controversial decision to fly the Palestinian flag from the City Chambers, critics have warned.
Original plans to raise only the banner of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) were reversed at a full council meeting yesterday and preparations are now under way to hoist both flags for a day.
Amid escalating violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, it is understood the flags will be flown side by side early next week, although dates have still to be finalised.
Council leader Andrew Burns said it was important to stand in solidarity with the innocent civilians of Gaza and supporters said the move continued Edinburgh’s proud tradition of backing the oppressed peoples of the world.
But senior opposition politicians said the decision would have serious implications for business and tourism in Edinburgh, amid claims that overseas visitors, company directors and even prospective university students are set to cancel spending and investment plans.
The warnings come after disputed reports that a decision by Glasgow City Council to fly the Palestinian flag had resulted in an unnamed corporation cancelling moves to bring 600 business guests to the city.
Commenting on yesterday’s decision, Lothian Tory MSP Cameron Buchanan predicted a backlash which could see tourists staying away and damage the Capital’s profile.
He said: “I think it’s a disastrous idea, which doesn’t help anyone. It’s completely and utterly wrong.” And he warned that “gesture politics” could have serious consequences.
“They should not get involved in these sort of things, whichever flag they want to fly,” he said. “It’s just crazy and doesn’t do anyone any good. It will mean a backlash in terms of tourism. Tourists don’t like things being politicised and it could hurt Edinburgh’s reputation.”
Mr Buchanan claimed Dundee’s image had suffered when it flew the Palestinian flag back in the 1980s.
“It hurt them a lot,” he said. “People just refused to come. We have a lot of Israelis and others who come to Edinburgh. It is wrong to make these political gestures, particularly for a capital city.”
Civilians in Gaza have now endured six weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, with a missile strike yesterday killing three senior Palestinian commanders and five civilians, and leaving at least 40 injured.
According to the Gaza ministry of health, the total death toll up to midnight on Wednesday was 2065, with more than 10,300 injured. Three civilians have been killed in Israel since the start of the conflict and 64 soldiers have died.
Councillors at yesterday’s meeting united to condemn the violence but the amendment calling for the Palestinian flag to be flown in Edinburgh sparked division, with the 11-strong Conservative group voting against it.
In announcing the change, council leader Andrew Burns said: “Like every single person, no matter what our political persuasion is, whatever colour or none, all of us have been deeply appalled and distressed to witness the recent loss of life in Gaza. And we certainly all do stand in solidarity with the innocent civilians of Gaza – some 2000 people now have lost their lives in this recent conflict and we all again, regardless of our political persuasion, support an immediate ceasefire as called for by the United Nations.”
Leaders of the city’s Conservative group, while voicing strong support for a boost to humanitarian aid in the region, were critical of the new motion.
Councillor Cameron Rose, member for Southside-Newington, said: “Councillor Burns and the administration [have selected] a cause celebre, to focus in on one particular area.
“Unless the lack of even-handedness and selective compassion is not obvious to all, the motion goes on to make its partisan nature abundantly clear.”
Conservative members said they had received hundreds of angry calls about the decision and warned of damaging consequences for the city’s economy and reputation.
Dominic Heslop, member for Pentland Hills, said: “I have had an e-mail from a gentleman whose daughter was considering going to Edinburgh University and because of the city’s response to flying the Palestinian flag I understand that she and her father have now decided to go elsewhere, which I think is extremely sad.”
Israeli groups were scathing in their criticism of the motion, which they said amounted to supporting terrorism.
Dr Ezra Golombok, director of Israel Information Office in Scotland, said: “[Israel is] certainly disgusted that the Edinburgh council has chosen to associate the Capital with Hamas, named as terrorist by Britain, the USA, the EU and others.”
A spokesman for Israel’s UK embassy in London said: “Whilst the Palestinian flag flies over Edinburgh, the flag over Gaza is the green Hamas flag, which expresses the one-sided ideology of blind hatred, which the group shares with al-Qaeda, Boko-Haram, Isis and other radical Islamist entities around the world.”
But supporters of the motion were jubilant after it was voted through.
Albie O’Neill, of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “Alongside its support for the humanitarian appeal for Gaza, Edinburgh council is continuing its proud tradition of supporting the oppressed peoples of the world.
“Thirty years ago support was given to the people of South Africa, today it is the people of Palestine. This is a proud moment for the city of Edinburgh.”
Green councillor Chas Booth, who lodged an earlier motion calling for the Palestinian flag to be flown from the City Chambers, added: “I support and welcome everything in the leader’s motion on the subject of Gaza. Indeed, in some ways, it is more comprehensive than my own motion. The horrendous loss of life and ongoing violence in Gaza is something we simply cannot ignore.”
By Dr Ewan Stein, Lecturer in the School of Political Science at Edinburgh University
I don’t think the city’s reputation would be damaged by the flying of the flag.
Edinburgh City Council is not the first council to have done this – there are others.
It’s following a trend. You have had, particularly in Latin America, lots of countries severing relations with Israel and withdrawing their ambassadors over the last few weeks in response to collective punishment in Gaza, with more than 2000 people, mostly civilians, killed.
So Edinburgh is within a growing trend around the world of countries, cities and peoples standing up and saying this is not acceptable.
This decision will be criticised in various quarters but I don’t think the city’s international reputation will be damaged as it’s not alone.
There has been a fear of appearing to sympathise with Hamas – a sort of conflation of the Palestinian people and their suffering with Hamas as a political organisation.
But the vast majority of the people being killed are ordinary civilians and it’s to distort reality to say that to show sympathy with those people is to show sympathy with Hamas.
I also think it’s significant that the capital city, with its international profile, has decided to do this.