Palestine unveils sports plan in effort to further state- and nationhood

Palestinian sports czar Jibril Rajoub

By James M. Dorsey
Palestine is scoring points on and off the soccer pitch as it seeks to employ sports to further its bid for statehood, ensure international support in its struggle against the debilitating effects of Israeli occupation and initiate a social revolution at home.

The Palestinian effort kicked into high gear this month with the unveiling of an ambitious ten-year plan backed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Palestine Authority to develop sports and a women’s friendly soccer match against world champion Japan.

The plan drafted by Spanish consultants hired by the IOC, which calls for a 61 million investment in sports facilities, was presented this week to donors by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, foreign minister Riyad al-Malki and Jibril Rajoub, who doubles as head of the Palestine Olympic Committee and the territory's soccer association.

"This is a breakthrough. Sports is a Palestine Authority priority alongside transportation and water," gushed Jerome Champagne, a former political advisor to world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who now advises the Palestine Authority on sports, after the presentation in Ramallah.

Mr. Champagne said he expected funding for the ten-year plan to be made available at the next meeting of Palestine's donors. That could take a little while with the United States delaying the convening of the meeting to stymie European Union efforts to play a more important role in the Middle East.

Effected by the global financial crisis donors could also ultimately prove to be less generous than Palestinians hope. Diplomatic representatives of the United Nations, Spain, France, Italy, Britain and Brazil welcomed the plan but stressed at the meeting in Ramallah what they were already doing to support Palestinian sports rather than what they would do. To be fair, the diplomats were not the ones that control their countries' purse strings.

The Palestine Authority's emphasis on sports and the presentation of its ten-year plan could however not have come at politically convenient time for Palestine Authority.

To be sure, the plan has been long in the making and Palestine has come a long way since becoming in 1998 the first nation without a state to become a member of FIFA. In the last year, Palestine has played its first World Cup and Olympic qualifiers on Palestinian soil. Its national women's soccer team is breaking taboos in a traditionally conservative society.

Nonetheless, President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestine Authority has been politically weakened by its inability to force Israel to make concessions the Palestinians need to agree to a revival of peace talks and Israel's boost of Hamas with this month's swap of Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel.

In emphasising sports and identifying with it, the authority is following in the footsteps of other Middle Eastern leaders who saw soccer, the region's most popular sport, as a tool to polish their tarnished images and distract attention from discontent with government policies. But in contrast to those leaders, they are promoting sports on a far more popular and transparent level and in ways that benefit the public and push the social envelope.

"We want this (plan) to be seen as an integrated part of our national development plan, an indispensable component," Mr. Fayyad told the diplomats, describing the sports initiative as "a hopeful enterprise." He said recalling his recent attendance at a soccer match that sports provides "a sense of joy, happiness of the people with just being there."

"We are witnessing a different kind of revolution... We are allowing people to release fears. They have the right to fight to achieve self-determination in sports like in any other field," added Mr. Malki.

The development plan is designed to project Palestine internationally as a nation and a state, strengthen nation-building and social development at home and focus attention on the debilitating effects of Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinian athletes. "For me, sport is a tool to realise the Palestinian people's national aspirations by exposing our cause through sports. I think that the ethics of sports and football is a rational and humanitarian way to convince the international community that we deserve freedom and independence," said Mr. Rajoub who doubles as Palestine Olympic Committee and Football Association czar.

Mr. Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief with a military bearing who spent 17 years in Israeli prison, met his Israeli Olympic Committee counterpart for a third time this year in advance of the launch of the plan to discuss cooperation in easing the restrictions on athletes as well as the movement of sports materials. The two committees established a hotline to facilitate the movement of athletes stuck at Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank. They also looked at ways of enabling travel between the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Despite goodwill, the effort has so far produced limited results. Palestinians are waiting to see whether the processing three months ago of their last shipment from FIFA through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport in less than a week constitutes a change in Israeli attitudes. Until then shipments were held up for up to six months, incurring storage and other costs for the Palestinians that amounted to a multi-fold of the value of the goods shipped.

There has however been only limited improvement in athletes' ability to move around the West Bank or between the Palestine Authority-controlled region and the Gaza Strip. "The problem is the Israeli committee is not the relevant authority for the movement of people and equipment. We are trying, but I don't want to embarrass anyone," Mr. Rajoub says.

Nonetheless, soccer officials and players concede that crossing checkpoints has become somewhat easier this year. They attribute it primarily to improved security with Israel less concerned about the threat of terrorist attacks being launched from the West Bank. In addition, the PFA has created sleeping quarters in the Faisal Hussein Stadium so that players can get together to train without worrying whether they will be able to return home.

The perceived easing has done little for 13 of the 25 members of the Palestinian national soccer team who hail from Gaza. Goalkeeper Assem Abu Assi thinks of his wife and son in Gaza whenever the Palestinian flag is raised at an international match. Mr. Abu Assi has not seen them in four years because of an Israel refusal to grant him a travel permit. Mid-fielders Maali Kawari and Ismail Al Amur too have not been allowed to return for visits to Gaza.

"My dream is to just play football with my family watching in the stadium. It has never happened. Happiness is never complete. I'm always only half happy," Mr. Abu Assi says.

He and his co-players see soccer however as more than just a game. It constitutes their contribution to achieving Palestinian statehood. "Raising the Palestinian flag on the roof of a house in Palestine is a big issue. It is an even bigger issues when we raise the flag as a state outside the country," Mr. Abu Assi says. "Soccer is a way to build a state. When we go to India or Thailand, we put Palestine on the map," adds Mr. Kawari. "The Israelis know that sport is good for Palestinians. That's why they try to limit our success," Mr. Al Amur chips in.

The problems implementing the Palestinian sports development plan are further illustrated by FIFA and Palestinian efforts to get Israeli approval for the import of Jordanian personnel and materials to build two FIFA-funded soccer playing grounds in the Palestinian West Bank towns of Qalqilya and El Bireh. "The Israelis do not allow us to start the project. Our deadline is at the end of the year. Otherwise we lose the project," says Nabhan Khraishi, a PFA media advisor.

Mr. Khraishi says the Israeli authorities are delaying the El Bireh project because it is too close to the Israeli settlement of Psagot. The Israelis fear that the gathering of excited fans so close to one of their outposts could spark anti-Israeli protests at a time that anti-government protests are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

The struggle for state and nationhood is not only one in which Palestinians confront the Israelis. It is also a struggle for the kind of society Palestinians want their country to be. That is nowhere more true than with the right of women to play soccer.

The national women's team faced two obstacles when it met world champion Japan earlier this month on the soccer pitch in Hebron, the West Bank's most conservative town that unlike Ramallah, Bethlehem or East Jerusalem does not count Christians among its residents. The match moreover underscored differences within the Islamist movement with the city's Hamas mayor supporting the women's team and the local Hizb ut Tahrir movement opposing it.

Hizb ut Tahrir websites denounced the team as "naked bitches" even though they wore leggings and at least one of the squad's players dons a hijab, an Islamic headdress that covers the hair, ears and neck. Hizb ut Tahrir imams denounced the match from the pulpit in their mosques; school principals in Hebron banned their students from attending the match warning them that they would burn in hell if they went to the stadium.  The PFA was forced to bus in supporters.

Crowds cheered the team as they left the stadium even though they lost to Japan with a whopping 19:0. The team, which unlike its opponent is made up of university students rather than professionals, recovered in a second match, losing only 4:0 from the world champion. "It was a social revolution. We broke the barrier and taboo when we went to Hebron and Nablus (a conservative city in the north of the West Bank). The whole barrier collapsed" Mr. Rajoub says.

It no doubt was the beginning of a social revolution, however one that has yet to play out. A majority of the players in Palestine's six women soccer clubs as well as its national team are Christians rather than Muslims. Yet, even players from Christian families often fight battles at home to be allowed to play. Claudia Salameh, a 21-year old business administration student, said her family wanted her to stop when she got engaged but that her fiancé had supported her. Other players report similar splits in their families.

"Things are changing. It depends on what area of the country. Lifestyles are changing. Three years ago it was unacceptable for girls to walk in the streets with shorts. It was unacceptable to play soccer, run or ride a bicycle in shorts. Now it is ok in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem," Ms. Salameh said.         

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer 


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