Thousands lined the streets of Gaza City and the West Bank – for once, neither for a political demonstration, nor for to commemorate another tragic life lost in the conflict with Israel, but for football.
Scenes of jubilation, euphoria and national pride greeted the sensational winning goal from Ashraf Al Fawaghra, as people watched the 1-0 victory live on giant screens. Palestine became the 16th nation to successfully book a place in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, which takes place in Australia at the turn of the calendar year.
The test could hardly be stronger, with matches against Japan, Jordan and 2007 winners of the competition, Iraq. Jamal Mahmoud, the head coach of the national side, was coy about his side’s chances at the Asian Cup, facing Japan on January 12 at the Newcastle Stadium. “We’ll see what we can do,” he laughed.
Praise rained in from senior political leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas who hailed the win as an opportunity to increase Palestine’s role in the “sphere of Asian football.”
A report from the news agency, AFP, claimed the triumph “inspired a feeling of unity among Palestinians, divided by a deep political rift between Hamas and the West Bank-based Fatah.”
The Palestine government described the people as being “a pillar of their society” and the performance showing as a symbol of the creativity in the Palestine’s younger generation.
Winning the tournament and qualifying for the Asian Cup is a small facet to the story – it’s seen as an enhancement of Palestine’s international status.
Following the establishment of the Palestinian Football Federation in 1928 – and acceptance by FIFA in 1929 after being shunned by the IAAF five years prior – sport and football solidified the sense of sovereignty in the West Bank.
But the outbreak of war in November 1947 “paralysed” the state’s soccer activities. Palestinian citizens in the late 1940s and 1950s fled for neighbouring Arab lands and the original Federation disintegrated.
A new body was setup after the foundation of the Israeli State, but was succeeded by the Palestinian Football Association in 1962. It took 36 years for them to be recognised by the world’s governing body – and also to become a permanent member of the Asian Football Confederation.
Palestine’s first international on home soil was six years ago, while Saturday’s triumph in the Maldives is their first international championship success.
Just days earlier, Blatter made a visit to the West Bank – a meeting attended by Israeli president Benjamin Netanhayu and Jibril Rajoub, the president of the Palestinian Football Association, among others - prompted discussions over potential sanctions against Israel at the next FIFA Congress, due to take place in Brazil next month.
Rajoub called for sanctions to be imposed on Israel after the continuing blockade of Palestinian borders and presented the obstacles that stand in the path of the Football Federation, even, for example, in players having the capacity to attend training.
The association’s president cited the actions of Israel as being in ‘non-compliance of the Olympic agreement and of international laws.’ Israel, meanwhile, continues to cite security concerns as its reason for limiting trade and transport across the border to the West Bank.
There was widespread condemnation at the reports of two teenage footballers who were shot at the military checkpoint. The Israeli officials claim the pair had been throwing bombs at the security forces. Either story, however, considering the circumstances, is challenging to verify.
One Palestine player, for example, has been arrested and yet to be released, as James Montague reports in his New York Times piece.
As far away as Chile, the diaspora of Palestinians has been seen as the loudest voices to tackle the oppression at the hands of the Israeli government. The Palestinian population in the South American nation is believed to be one of the biggest outside of the Arab world.
In January, that became clear through football as ‘Palestino’, a two-time championship winning side founded in 1920 by immigrants, designed in their shirts to reflect the Palestinian flag. But after three matches, the shirt was banned by the Chilean authorities, following complaints from the sizeable Jewish community.
FIFA continues to be the mediator between the two nations, but president Blatter, who will run for a fifth term, looks keen to clean his hands of solving the political turmoil. The international success of the Palestinian team will only keep the focus on Israel’s treatment at the top of the agenda.
Blatter describes himself as a “self-declared ambassador of the Palestine people."
While a solution to the Middle East’s troubles appears to be in the distance, football, on reflection, could be doing more for peace and stability in the Middle East than politics and politicians themselves. It’s strengthening confidence in the Palestinian state.