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'St George is Palestinian': Meet England's 'free Palestine' fan

Martin Near, who shouted 'Filisteen hora' during an Arabic TV interview, tells MEE he hopes he has started a trend
Martin Near became an online sensation after shouting 'Free Palestine' in an interview at the 2022 World Cup

When England fan Martin Near gave a TV interview in which he said football was "coming home", before going on to bellow "free Palestine" in Arabic, he had no idea he was going to become one of this World Cup's unlikely heroes.

Near was celebrating England's 3-0 win over Wales, which sent the Three Lions through to meet Senegal in the last 16, when he gave an interview to an Arabic channel. 

With a St George's cross drawn on his face and a Palestinian flag in his hand, the Englishman apologised for his "not so good" Arabic, before going on to say: "One: football, it's coming home. And number two: Filisteen hora! [free Palestine!]"

Cue wild scenes from the crowd around him and an outpouring of appreciation on social media.

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A former marketing executive, Near quit the "rat race" for a life of travelling and adventure, he told Middle East Eye from his hotel room in Sri Lanka.

He said that he was not the England "hooligan" type traditionally depicted by the media and that he had not expected the interview he gave to go viral - one video of it posted to Twitter has been watched 5.5m times.

'St George himself is a Palestinian, an important fact people miss out'

- Martin Near

"The cross on the face is not representative of the crusades. The cross of St George is our national flag, part of England team flag and it does not represent anything else," Near told MEE.

"St George himself is a Palestinian, an important fact people miss out," he emphasised. 

George is thought to have been a soldier in the Roman army, and his mother is believed to have been from Lydda (also known as Lod) in what is now Israel. Not only is he England's patron saint, he is a hero in Palestine. 

Near has visited Palestine and toured the occupied West Bank, where in the town of Beit Jala the shrine of St George can be found, not far beyond a notorious Israeli military checkpoint.

After the interview, his inbox filled up with messages from friends and family, some of them asking him what he was "doing on the telly". 

Near told MEE that for years England fans had been portrayed by mass media as "drunk, fighting idiots, perhaps a little bit racist and a little bit stupid.

"That's absolutely not the case. There is a wide range of people, and some of the fans care very deeply about injustice, and some of us can support our national team to win the football and at the same time can call for a free Palestine," he said.

'I'm proud to say Free Palestine'

Near said that he only knows 20 to 30 words of Arabic (two of them being Filisteen hora) and he told MEE that his visit to Palestine was "an eye-opening experience".

Seeing the Israeli military occupation first-hand, Israeli settlements, and how Palestinians are not allowed to drive on certain roads and enter some parts of their land, Near left the country feeling "a terrible sense of injustice. I was asking myself why people are not doing anything, why no one is outraged," he said.

Near went to the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which is owned by the graffiti artist Banksy and was set up to draw attention to the "worst view in the world": the vast Israeli separation wall that prevents Palestinians from freely leaving or entering Bethlehem. 

Though he received many messages of thanks because of the interview, with some celebrities wishing him the best, he was also attacked. 

He admits that he made a mistake by reading comments on social media. He read to MEE some of those messages, which variously described him as a "Brexit supporter", "fake news" and an Arab "plant" who was not actually English.

Near joked that if any Qataris wanted to pay for his ticket to the World Cup final, "I shall accept."

"I'm proud to say 'free Palestine', and I hope all England fans will join me in saying Filisteen hora," Near said.

Over the years, he said, he had seen fans in England change dramatically, from using the racist P-word against Britain's Asian community 20 years ago, to having fans chanting "free Palestine".

In fact, Near isn't the only England fan to have gone viral with a call to free Palestine. Harry Hatton, a 23-year-old who lives in Dubai, gave an interview with Israeli TV in which he said exactly the same thing.

Near believes he might have inadvertently started a trend.

"Could this be the start of something? Is this a trend now?" he asked. "Are we going to see at the end of every game England's fans grabbing the microphone and shouting 'free Palestine'? I hope so."

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