Asian soccer tournament is field of dreams for Palestine's players

Palestine has qualified for the first time for the Asia Cup, hosted by Australia. Palestinian officials say that Israeli security restrictions have held back the national soccer team and see its participation as a symbol of global recognition.

Christa Case Bryant / The Christian Science Monitor
Mahmoud Sheikh Qasem, sporting his new Palestine soccer uniform, holds his niece on the doorstep of his home in al-Amari refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah on Dec. 24, 2014. Palestine is competing this month in the Australia-hosted Asia Cup tournament for the first time.

It was an unorthodox pre-match workout: scampering up and down rocky hillsides to avoid Israeli soldiers.

But as Moussa Abu Jazar’s Jerusalem-based soccer team approached an Israeli checkpoint en route to a Bethlehem match in 2010, he knew he could be caught for having an expired permit. So he circumvented the checkpoint on foot, rejoining his teammates farther down the highway.

Other Palestinian players have been imprisoned, fatally shot at protests, and injured or killed in conflicts in Gaza. Security forces have raided clubs and paid a recent visit to the Palestine Football Association (PFA). All of which makes the underdog team’s first-ever participation in Asia’s biggest soccer tournament, which kicks off Friday, a cause of celebration after an otherwise difficult year for Palestinians.

The team qualified for the Asian Cup by beating the Philippines last May. Thousands turned out in the West Bank to welcome the players home after a victory that earned them their first-ever slot in Asia’s biggest soccer tournament, which started Friday in Australia

As the 115th -ranked team globally, a notch above Iraq, nobody expects Palestine to bring home a trophy. Its first game Monday is against Japan, ranked 54th – and the tournament favorite.

But the young men who charge down the field bearing the name of Palestine on their jerseys see themselves as much more than soccer players. They’re nicknamed fedayeen, after the Palestinian fighters who retaliated against Israel's founding and later its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. (Editor's note: This version was updated to correct the time-frame of fedayeen activities.)

“All of the players feel that the national team is not a job, it’s a service for the homeland,” says Mahmoud Sheikh Qasem, who started playing during the second intifada, or uprising, moving to indoor pick-up games when Israeli tanks were in the streets. “We want to create a breakthrough, because people are waiting for a happy moment.”

At a time when Palestinian national aspirations have been stymied at the negotiating table, on the battlefield, and in the United Nations Security Council, the unprecedented success of its soccer team is a rallying point – and an international stage to score political points. 

“For me, sport is a tool to achieve national aspirations,” says Jibril Rajoub, president of the PFA, roosting in a plush leather chair in his spacious office in Jerusalem. “And I think it’s also rational and realistic to use such a tool to realize national aspirations rather than use the violence of machine guns.” 

‘We are not a hateful people’

Mr. Rajoub has had a long career fighting for Palestine. Israel gave him a life sentence at age 17 for throwing a grenade at Israeli troops. He was released 15 years later in a 1985 prisoner swap, became a leader in the first intifada, and went on to serve as West Bank security chief under the late Yasser Arafat and then national security adviser.

His 2008 election as PFA chief was a departure of sorts. But he’s used it to build what he describes as a model for other Palestinian institutions, gaining international support based not on sympathy, but success.

He overhauled the association, roughly doubling the number of players registered to more than 13,000; trained 600 referees, coaches, and administrators; and built shiny new stadiums across the West Bank – and his own gleaming headquarters. A framed photo shows Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, soccer's international governing body, accepting a Palestinian VIP passport with a huge smile.

Many describe the team as the Palestinian nation’s most muscular ambassadors, providing a welcome break from the image of Palestinians as heartless militants. “We have a love, we have a heart, we are not a hateful people,” says Husam al-Hussein of the PFA’s international affairs department.

Showing up is half the battle

But even with support from FIFA, it’s complicated to field a national team when you don’t control customs, borders, or an airport. Every time Palestinian players travel abroad to a match, their exit and reentry is dependent on Israeli approval. Of the 23-man squad traveling to Australia, all but six live in the Palestinian territories. 

In 2007, the Palestinian team was forced to forfeit a World Cup qualifier match when Israel prevented their travel to Singapore. Abu Jazar has only been back to his city of Khan Younis in Gaza three times since 2009 for fear of not being able to return to his West Bank club, which pays a salary that allows him to support his large family back home.

Gaza was once teeming with talented players like Abu Jazar. Then came the 2007 Hamas takeover that cut off the territory from the West Bank, which is ruled by Fatah, the dominant Palestinian party, and led to harsher Israeli restrictions on Gaza.

"Before the [Hamas-Fatah rift], sport in Gaza was high and quality was fantastic," says Abu Jazar. After 2007, "every time there was a tournament arranged, there was either a war with Israel or between factions."

 Even today, it is often difficult for players from the two territories to play together on a regular basis. Last summer’s Gaza war killed at least six soccer players as well as the former head coach and some other officials, and demolished the house of assistant coach Saeb Jundiyeh.

Trapped in Gaza, Mr. Jundiyeh and others watched from afar as the team, with only 14 players in the squad, competed last September in a four-nation tournament in the Philippines. Palestine finished third after beating Chinese Taipei, the name used by Taiwan, which faces its own complex challenges to statehood (China considers it a breakaway province).

Accusations of Hamas ties

Israel defends the travel restrictions on security grounds. Last spring, Israel’s Shin Bet security force arrested Palestinian player Samah Maraaba and accused him of meeting with a member of Hamas’s military wing while on tour in Qatar and of couriering money, a cellphone, and a note to Hamas members in the West Bank. Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat accused Palestinians of “misuse of sports in a fashion that threatens the security of Israeli civilians.” Mr. Maraaba has since been released.

FIFA has tried to address Israeli restrictions on the movements of the Palestinian team, but Rajoub says it’s had little impact. “But … we will not raise a white flag. We have to continue with persistence to develop the game, because this is the only way we’re going to corner [Israel],” he says, whipping a red card out of his shirt pocket.

The players, for their part, are looking forward to hearing the chants for a state that has yet to be officially born. “What I love most is, in every game the name of Palestine is up and roaring,” says Abu Jazar. “I feel I’m raising the banner of Palestine high and loud.”

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