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Despite Hamas-Fatah split, Gaza's sportsmen score a truce. Game on.

Gazans from Hamas and Fatah have overcome the deep political divide to reopen sports clubs, many of which Hamas had turned into police stations and military bases.

By Daniel Estrin/ Contributor / November 18, 2010

Amateur soccer players competed at the recently reopened Al-Ahli sports club in Gaza. Many of Gaza’s sports clubs have reopened, though political tension remains high.

Daniel Estrin

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Gaza City, Gaza

The schoolboys chasing after a soccer ball at Ittihad Al-Shajayia sports club here hardly seem to notice the concrete shell nearby – all that's left of what were the club's offices before Israeli planes bombed them.

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And not one boy stopped to admire the large mural that depicts Israel's target: masked militants kneeling next to a rocket launcher.

Gaza's sports fields became battlegrounds in the violence that has shaken this tiny coastal territory in recent years. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip from the ruling secular Fatah party in 2007, Hamas commandeered sports clubs and transformed many of them into police stations and military bases. All youth leagues and professional sports games in Gaza stopped.

But today, athletes consider that ancient history. Though the Palestinian infighting still continues, with the two parties set to resume high-stakes reconciliation talks this month, Gaza's sportsmen recently signed a miniature peace deal of their own – and reopened the clubs.

"It's best to separate sports from politics," says Saeb Jundeya, captain of Ittihad Al-Shajayia's soccer team, as he watches the kids play.

Hamas takes over Gaza's 40 main clubs

After Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007, the Palestinian Football Federation – affiliated with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority – cut off its funding of Gaza's professional soccer teams.

"No leagues, no matches, and no games in Gaza," says Eyad al-Rais, a sports commentator for Palestinian radio and TV.

For about a year, the neighborhood sports centers remained open for youth leagues and amateur athletes who just wanted to kick around a soccer ball for fun. But then Hamas took over Gaza's 40 main clubs, almost all of which were administered by Fatah-affiliated directors and received partial funding from Fatah.

A neighbor of the Ittihad Al-Shajayia club, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions from Hamas, described what he saw from his window on July 17, 2008. One hour after midnight, he watched dozens of Hamas military jeeps surround the club. Armed men broke down the doors, changed all the locks, and declared the area a military zone. He said militants later converted the office building and locker rooms into a base for shooting rockets into Israel – a base Israel later bombed in its 2009 military offensive in Gaza.

Sports clubs are magnets for Gaza's young men, and some in Hamas wanted to keep them open, thinking they could "influence large numbers of youth and attract them to their side," says Mr. Rais.

Managers, coaches, fans push back

But the ousted managers couldn't stand the thought of Hamas men sitting in their old offices, with their feet up on their desks – so they asked Gazans to stay out. Rais began publishing op-eds against the political hijacking of Gaza's sports life. Coaches and fans also spoke out.

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