Palestine: Playing soccer for statehood


Soccer is Palestine’s latest building block in its attempt to create a state independent of whether moribund peace talks with Israel resume or not.

Soccer despite lack of funds and disruptive Israeli travel restrictions is flourishing in troubled Palestinian areas. Stadiums are being built or refurbished across the West Bank and the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) is hosting international tournaments. The Palestinian national team is set to next month host its first ever World Cup qualifying match.

The Palestinian Olympic team is scheduled to play Bahrain on Sunday and again on June 23 in the second preliminary round of Asian qualifiers for the 2012 London Games.

In a twist of history, next year’s Olympics will mark the 40th anniversary of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Black September killing of 11 Israelis during the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.

Even more importantly and equally symbolically, Palestine’s national will meet Afghanistan on June 29 and July 3 in first-round Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Making it to Brazil is a long shot for Palestine ranked number 171 on FIFA’s list of national teams. Yet, the mere fact of competing internationally helps put the Palestinians on the map.

In a sign that Palestinians and Israelis can solve their own problems if left to themselves, Israeli sports officials are helping Palestinians overcome Israeli security obstacles. Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed last month to set up a telephone hotline to ease the movement of Palestinian athletes, coaches, and officials.

The agreement is particularly important for Palestinian soccer. Palestine’s national soccer team has been hampered by Israeli travel restrictions that more often than not prevent Gaza-based players from travelling to the West Bank for training and matches. Members of the team have also been stopped by the Israelis from travelling abroad for international competitions. In 2007, FIFA forced the Palestinians to forfeit a World Cup qualifier to Singapore because they failed to field a full team after Israel denied permits to 18 players and officials from Gaza.

The hotline is intended for among others when a Palestinian athlete is stopped at an Israeli security checkpoint on his or her way to a competition. It will allow the Israeli Olympic Committee to intervene and help ease the athlete’s passage.

In a world in which soccer is played to score both sports and political goals, Palestine, world soccer body FIFA’s only member that has yet to establish a state, is working to make its mark on soccer in what effectively amounts to playing for statehood.

“Ours is more than just a game,” says PFA secretary general Abdel Majid Hijjeh. “It breaks the siege on Palestinian sports and the Palestinian people.”

“When teams come to play on our land, it’s a way of recognizing the Palestinian state. That benefits the Palestinian cause, not just Palestinian sports,” adds player Murad Ismael in an interview with the Associated Press.

Palestine’s soccer effort fits into a Palestine Authority campaign spearheaded by President Mahmoud Abbas to ensure popular support at time of popular revolt in the Arab world and reduce Palestinian dependence on failed US efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Mr. Abbas has all but given up on US President Barack Obama’s ability to force Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Mr. Abbas last month agreed to reconciliation with his arch rival Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. He is also pushing for recognition of Palestinian statehood in September by the United Nations General Assembly in a move he hopes will effectively isolate the United States and Israel.

Leading the charge on the soccer pitch is PFA President Jibril Rajoub, a 58-year old tough anti-Israeli activist, former security chief and member of the central committee of Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah guerrilla group-turned political party. Mr. Rajoub, who served 17 years in Israeli jails for throwing a grenade at Israeli soldiers when he was 17 years old, worked hard to get Israeli consent to upgrade a soccer stadium in Al-Ram, a Jerusalem suburb a stone’s throw from the barrier that separates the West Bank from Israel, and FIFA funding for its refurbishment.

He also convinced FIFA to allow Palestine to play in 2008 its first ever match on home ground rather than in a neighbouring Arab capital. The crowds in the Faisal al Husseini Stadium shouted “Football is nobler than war” as Palestine took the lead in its first international match in the stadium, a friendly against Jordan.

“We can achieve a lot for our cause through sports. The world is changing and we have to push the legitimacy of our national aspirations through sports. I hope sports will help Israel reach the right conclusion. We are 4.2 million people living under Israeli occupation; I hope that I can convince the Israelis that we should open a new page that recognizes the existence of Palestinian people,” Mr. Rajoub said.

“I don’t wish the suffering of the Palestinian people on anyone, including the Israelis. If we are for sport in the world, it has to be fair and just for all. I speak with Shimon Peres, and on this we have some common ground,” Mr. Rajoub said, referring to the Israeli president’s visit earlier this year to Real Madrid where he suggested that soccer could play a role in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Supported by Mr. Abbas and under the leadership of Mr. Rajoub, the PFA has seen its annual budget balloon from $870,000 in 2008 to more than $6 million in 2010, PFA finance manger Jihad Qura told the Associated Press. The PFA had three full-time employees in 2008, now it has 30.

Five new stadiums have been built and refurbished in the past three years on the West Bank. The most recent was inaugurated in the southern town of Dura on June 12 with a friendly between the Palestinian and Italian Olympic teams. Thousands watched.

The Palestinian Olympic team played its first home game in the Ram stadium in March. To Palestinians, it was a powerful symbol of a people seeking independence. The Palestinians lost in a penalty shootout to Thailand, but advanced to Sunday’s qualifying round against Bahrain because Thailand fielded an ineligible player.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])