Few football matches highlight sharp political divide, leadership conflicts and lack of free movement as the Palestine Cup. Revived last year after 2000, this double-leg, home-and-away contest between champion teams of the West Bank Premier League and the Gaza Strip League was postponed for the second time in three days on Monday because only 10 players were allowed to travel.
This year’s edition is being played between Gaza’s Shabab Khan Younis and West Bank’s Ahli Al-Khaleel who are also the defending champions. The first leg was in Gaza on Tuesday (July 26) which Ahli Al-Khaleel won 1-0. Not an unusual scoreline till it is told that seven players of the winning side were prevented from travelling by Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency. The seven, said Ma’an News Agency, are Palestine internationals and as the match kicked-off, they were awaiting permission to cross into Gaza. It also meant only 11 players were available for Ahli Al-Khaleel.
When it was the Gaza team’s turn to travel, Israel blocked entry of six players, including the goalkeepers, leading to the game being postponed from Saturday to Monday. Even then it couldn’t take place because the clearances didn’t come in time and it will now be held on Tuesday, according to a Reuters report. The winners over two legs qualify for the AFC Cup in the quarter-finals of which I-League champions Bengaluru FC will play next month. This year, Ahli Al-Khaleel qualified for the main round but were eliminated in the group stage.
Complaint to Fifa
When the players couldn’t travel for Saturday’s game, the Palestine Football Association (PFA) complained to Fifa and postponed the match to Monday. Only if all players are allowed to travel would the return leg take place, said the PFA. Players from Shabab Khan Younis also alleged they were made to wait for hours in the sun and then only a part of the team allowed to cross.
“I heard they were asked about their neighbors and about all kinds of things in Gaza that have no connection to security,” Jibril Rajoub, the PFA head was quoted as saying by the Haaretz website. “The sole purpose was to wear them down for hours upon hours in the burning heat, and in the end to allow only part of the team to pass the checkpoint and reach Hebron.” The report also quoted Shin Bet as saying that “after investigating, a decision was made to bar entry to some members of the team due to damaging security information and in light of the security situation.”
Israel lifted the ban following international pressure, according to a Times of Israel report. Israel controls the border at Gaza whose main stadium was hit by a missile attack in 2012. Palestinians consider West Bank and Gaza Strip as their land and have the support of the international community on this.
Movement of Palestinian sportspersons through Israeli territory, as is the case here, has been a problem area. It led to Palestine seeking a ban on Israel by Fifa last year but, following a compromise where assurance on easier travel were reportedly given, the PFA didn’t pursue it.
To counter Palestine then, Israel had pointed out to Fifa that Rajoub called Palestinians attacking Israelis heroes. Last year, when the competition was revived following easing of travel restrictions between West Bank and Gaza, jewishpress.com published a report saying that a flyer was distributed terming the match between Ahli Al-Khaleel and Shejaiya as one between kidnappers of Israeli soldiers whose bodies were not released after they were killed in Gaza in 2014.
Some Shejaiya players too were barred from travelling and it was only after they also said that either everyone goes or the match is called off, were the decisions reversed. Shejaiya’s fans though were not allowed to travel.
But this is not just about strained relations between Israel and Palestine. It is also about the two conflicting strands of Palestine leadership, the Ramallah based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. “They represent two forms of Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians — occupation here, siege there,” wrote Yoni Mendel, who holds a Phd on Middle Eastern studies from Cambridge University, in an article translated from Hebrew and posted in the +972 website.
Following fractious relations with Hamas, based in Gaza, PA governs only West Bank. “…The question of whether reconciliation on the soccer field will pave the way for Palestinian reconciliation, which is so necessary for the Palestinian struggle for independence, will be on everyone’s mind,” Mendel wrote before this year’s matches.
The matches is 2015 were described as a big Palestinian sports wedding by Al Ahly director Kifah al-Shareef. Speaking to Middle East Eye he had said: “We are able to achieve our dream, because movement and access is the legitimate right of all Palestinians…The importance of this game is to show how sport can unite one nation, and we hope politicians will also unite as a result.”