Soccer is for Palestinians as much a passionate national pastime as it is a platform to achieve an independent state of their own and full equality for Palestinians in Israel proper who account for some 20 per cent of the population.
playing Thailand this week in a 2012 Olympics Game Under-21
qualifier in the West Bank’s Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium was more about establishing a state than it was about qualifying for the Olympics. Thailand may have won the qualifier 6:5 after penalties but Palestine feels it inched ever so closer to gaining at least symbolically the recognition it so badly desires.
"This is more than just a game," Abdel Majid Hijjeh, secretary general of the Palestinian Football Association told The Independent. "It breaks the siege on Palestinian sports and the Palestinian people." Hijjieh was referring to restrictions imposed by Israel on travel between Gaza and the West Bank that prevented five of 11 Gaza-based players from traveling for the game. Of the six that were allowed to attend, three arrived too late to register, meaning that only three Gazans were able to take to the field. Israeli regulations force the team’s Tunisian coach, Mokhtar Tlili, to leave the West Bank every three months for a period of several weeks.
Palestine’s stadium is as much part of the effort to achieve statehood as is the team. Palestine Football Association (PFA) President Jibril Rajoub, a 57-year old tough anti-Israeli activist, former security chief and member of the central committee of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Al Fatah guerrilla group-turned political party, worked hard to get Israeli consent to upgrade the 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 neighboring Arab capital. The crowds in the Faisal al Husseini Stadium shouted "Football is nobler than war" as Palestine took an early lead in a friendly against Jordan. The message was loud and clear: If Fatah’s opponents, Hamas, the Islamists who govern the Gaza Strip, want to fight their way to statehood, Rajoub and Fatah have decided playing for it may prove to be a more successful strategy. Ironically, those Palestinian divisions cut right through Rajoub’s family. Rajoub’s brother, Nayef was a Hamas candidate for parliament in elections in 2006.
“I hope this first-ever official game in the Palestinian territories will not be the last, but rather the first step in establishing the minimum rights of Palestinian people.” The New York Times quoted Rajoub as saying after the game against Thailand. “I am pretty sure that through sports we can achieve a lot to our cause. The world is changing in the 21st century, and we have to at least try to push the legitimacy of our national aspiration through sports.”
Rajoub said he hoped that sports would help Israel “reach the right conclusion. We are 4.2 million people living under Israeli occupation; I hope that I can convince the Israelis we should open a new page toward recognizing the existence of Palestinian people.”
Rajoub, who served 17 years in Israeli jails for throwing a grenade at Israeli soldiers when he was 17 years old has forged links with Israel’s football association and its national Olympic to cooperate on training and financing of male and female Palestinian athletes to compete in the Olympics. 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.
Rajoub’s willingness to cooperate with Israel appears to have contributed to a narrowing of the gap with his colleagues in Arab soccer and Olympic committees who have refused to deal with Israel, which they ousted from the Asian Football Confederation, forcing it to compete in Europe.“…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,” Rajoub said, referring to the Israeli president’s recent visit to Real Madrid where he suggested that soccer could play a role in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
His words were echoed by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chairman Mohamed Bin Hamam, a Qatari national. Bin Hamam, speaking to Agence France Presse (AFP), rejected the notion held by a majority Arab teams that they should maintain their refusal to play on the West Bank because that would be tantamount to recognition of Israel’s occupation. “I hope that all Arab and Muslim teams will come here to play matches against Palestine at their own home ground. Sports must be a bridge between peoples and a way to reach peace in this region," Bin Hammam said.
Palestine’s hosting of Thailand came seven years after Bnei Sakhnin, Sons of Sakhnin, a team from the Palestinian town of Sakhnin that includes Arab and Jewish players, won Israel’s State Cup and represented Israel in that year’s European championship. Like Palestine’s national team, Sakhnin was playing for more than just the Cup. It was playing to demonstrate that Palestinians, who feel discriminated in Israel, are as much part of the state as are the Jews and entitled to equal rights. They also played to prove that Palestinian-Jewish cooperation offers a winning formula. Sakhnin captain Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim and outspoken proponent of Palestinian rights, became an Israeli national hero when he scored a last-minute goal for the Israeli national team that tied Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in 2006.