Scottish independence campaigners have found an unexpected source of support ahead of a landmark referendum on the fate of the United Kingdom — Palestinian bagpipers. In a small hall in the occupied West Bank, far from the tussle over Scotland’s future, pipers and stick-twirling drummers burst into action as local scout troop members march up and down for weekly practice.
The deafening display appears more like the kind of spectacle seen on the streets of Edinburgh than in the predominantly Christian town of Beit Jala.
But the scouts insist the bagpipes’ Scottish heritage translates perfectly to the Palestinian struggle for their own independence.
“The Scots used to have bagpipes on the battlefield, so for me, it’s part of resistance,” said Majeed Qonqar, 31, who joined the scouts aged 10 and has played the pipes since he was a teenager.
“As a bagpipe player, and knowing the history of bagpipes, I like to call it an instrument of war,” he said.
And as they long for their own Palestinian state, the band members say they support those Scots seeking to break away from Britain in the historic referendum on Thursday.
“Every person wants to be able to decide for themselves. So if they want to separate from the UK, then of course I support them,” said piper Issa Musallam, 23.
The irony that both the bagpipes and the scouts were brought to Palestine essentially by an occupying power — the British — is not lost on Qassis.
“Yes, well there are a lot of things left here from the British empire,” he laughed.
The British, who administered the region from 1920-1948, brought with them the scout tradition.
Qassis proudly displays in his office a framed copy of a 1933 letter from scout movement founder Robert Baden-Powell to the Palestine high commissioner at the time, commending the Palestinian scouts.
Photos of old marching bands adorn the walls of the practice hall.
But the Beit Jala Greek Orthodox scouts have turned their music, and their activities, into a distinctly Palestinian, and nationalist, venture.
During a long-term hunger strike earlier this year by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the scouts staged their own fast in solidarity.
And when the band goes to play elsewhere, the presence of Israel’s occupation is very much felt.
“It’s hard to move freely. When we want to go to Jerusalem to play in scout gatherings or to Nazareth (an Arab city in northern Israel), we have to cross Israeli army checkpoints which can take hours, and involve searches,” said Qonqar.
A stretch of land belonging to Beit Jala’s residents is threatened with confiscation by Israel, to make way for the completion of the vast separation barrier that runs through much of the West Bank.
Under these conditions, the scouts and their music provide a sense of community to Palestinian Christians in the area. Qassis shows a YouTube video made by the scouts — with accompanying bagpipe music — showcasing their community work and outdoor activities.
Qonqar says there are some 800 scouts of all ages in Beit Jala alone, a town of around 16,000 inhabitants. They gather on Christmas and Easter there and in neighbouring Bethlehem to celebrate the Christian festivals. Local children gather around to watch the practice, hopeful for a place one day in the prestigious local ensemble.
“Every single person in this scout troop would like to join the pipe band, but it’s not easy… it’s competitive,” said drummer George Ghawali, 20 smiling after an intense rehearsal.
When asked about the music’s Western heritage, Ghawali insisted: “The music is Palestinian.”
Yet as Scotland gears up for what looks set to be a knife-edge vote, there is a sense of solidarity thousands of kilometres (miles) away in the West Bank.
“As Palestinians, like everyone else, we want our own state,” said scout leader Khaled Qassis.
“The Scottish want their independence, their state, so they can live in a country that’s theirs and theirs alone,” he said. SAPA