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One of the most pro-Palestinian nations isn't in the Middle East. It's Ireland

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the most pro-Palestinian nations in the world is not an Arab- or Muslim-majority country. It's not even in the Middle East. Polls show Ireland has some of the highest support for Palestinians. NPR's Lauren Frayer traveled to Dublin and Belfast to find out why.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Fatin Al Tamimi immigrated to Ireland in 1988. She's Palestinian, and she wears the hijab, a Muslim headscarf.

FATIN AL TAMIMI: When I came first to this country in 1988, there weren't many Palestinians. There weren't many Muslims, even. And people thought I am a nun, and they will always - oh, bless you, sister.

FRAYER: But she says her Irish neighbors were immediately supportive of the Palestinian struggle.

AL TAMIMI: They come to me, and they would say, we know it all. We've been through that.

FRAYER: Al Tamimi's hijab and the checkered Palestinian kaffiyeh scarf that she wears might mark her out for hostility elsewhere. But in Ireland, she says people literally offer her hugs in the street.

AL TAMIMI: Especially when you - they see the kaffiyeh - oh, some of them will walk by me and say, free, free Palestine. Yeah. Yeah.

FRAYER: Since October 7, Al Tamimi has helped organize huge pro-Palestinian rallies in Dublin...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL TAMIMI: Hello, everyone. Salaam aleikum.

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: ...Where the crowd is overwhelmingly white and Irish.

MICHELLE CLARKE: I'm a Catholic Irish girl, you know?

FRAYER: Michelle Clarke founded a local Irish group called Mams Against Genocide.

CLARKE: When I see the pictures of the little kids, I just think of my own, and that's why I'm here.

FRAYER: Kirsten Farrelly is another of the mums.

KIRSTEN FARRELLY: Because we were colonized and oppressed and occupied, we immediately, in our DNA - we feel it and go, oh, my God. And it's the same with South Africa. It's the same with South America. All these scars are being opened up in us when we see what's happening to the Palestinians.

FRAYER: She says Ireland identifies with the Global South because while it may be a mostly white European country, a little over a hundred years ago, it was a British colony. And before the creation of Israel, Palestine was, too. It was called British Mandate Palestine.

DAVID CHAMBERS: Was British - it was a British state. It's Britain. It's just colonization. It's Britain.

FRAYER: That history is part of why the Irish identify with Palestinians, says David Chambers, better known as Blindboy, one of Ireland's most popular podcasters. He says there are uncanny connections. For example, Britain's 1917 Balfour Declaration, which laid the groundwork for Israel's creation. The man behind it...

CHAMBERS: Arthur Balfour - he was also in Ireland and was quite brutal in Ireland.

FRAYER: Balfour was a colonial governor of Ireland - also the Black and Tans, a brutal British police force that killed Irish civilians in the early 20th century.

CHAMBERS: When the Black and Tans left Ireland, these same people were sent to Palestine, to Mandatory Palestine, by Winston Churchill.

FRAYER: Where they exercised similar colonial control over Jews and Arabs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Palestine - and in the Jerusalem trouble areas, British armored columns make a tour of the main highways.

FRAYER: One of the British governors of Jerusalem even said that Israel could be a, quote, "loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism." Now, Ulster refers to Northern Ireland, which Britain still controls. His idea was that Israel might be a British foothold in the Arab world. Now, all of this history influences modern-day Irish politics. Ireland's prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has issued some of Europe's harshest criticism of Israel. In early November, he told reporters of Israel's offensive in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER LEO VARADKAR: What I'm seeing unfolding at the moment isn't just self-defense. It looks - it resembles something more approaching revenge.

FRAYER: And the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, told NPR she feels incredibly supported by Irish officials.

JILAN WAHBA ABDALMAJID: I always find open doors - open doors, open hearts, and they listen.

FRAYER: But there is another, darker chapter of history here. Ireland was neutral in World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: For in Dublin, there are still German and Japanese diplomatic representatives.

FRAYER: The Irish president sent condolences on Adolf Hitler's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: His refusal to meet the British and American requests to break off relationships with the Axis...

FRAYER: And afterward, Ireland allowed some Nazis to settle here. Historians say Irish neutrality was more about opposing Britain than out of any love for the Nazis. Ireland had only just gained independence from Britain about 20 years earlier.

ANDY CLARKE: When people say Ireland was antisemitic in World War II, it's almost weaponized against people in Ireland who want to speak out against Israel.

FRAYER: Historian Andy Clarke, who writes the popular Tanistry blog, says it was more of an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of thing.

CLARKE: Ironically enough, Ireland started off as pro-Israel. A lot of Irish people back in the early 20th century identified with this idea of this displaced people who have gone through turmoil throughout history, just like the Irish. And the idea of them getting their own state, their own home, appealed to a lot of Irish people. They said, let's give them somewhere safe.

FRAYER: It was only well after Israel's founding, he says, when it annexed and occupied more Arab land, that Irish public opinion flipped and flipped pretty dramatically. Today, Irish support for the Palestinians feels most pronounced in Northern Ireland, which is governed by the British and where Irish nationalists compare their situation to Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: And that's where we met The Shan Vans, an indie rock group that sings in the Irish language about the Palestinian struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THE SHAN VANS: (Singing in Irish).

FRAYER: In a disused warehouse, they're rehearsing a new song about Irish hunger strikers in British jails a generation ago and Palestinians in Israeli ones. Lead singer Jake Mac Siacais translates the lyrics for me.

JAKE MAC SIACAIS: So it's - we say (singing in Irish). The Irish is (speaking Irish), so laying naked in my cell. And then as that verse progresses, we sing, there is a light far off in Palestine.

(Singing in Irish).

And that last sort of energetic crescendo of the song is just singing the light is off, the light is off, the light is off in Palestine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THE SHAN VANS: (Singing in Irish).

FRAYER: On this island in the far north of Europe, the Palestinian struggle echoes everywhere.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Belfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THE SHAN VANS: (Singing in Irish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.