CNN: Palestine’s Rocky Road to Australia

Prayers before a game in GazaPalestine in the tunnel before 2014 World Cup match versus AfghanistanGazaEgypt 834
All photos © James Montague

The National Football Stadium in Male, the capital of The Maldives, was only half full as the match moved into injury time, but the 6,000 people in the crowd were about to witness history being made. It was May, 2014, and the final of the AFC Challenge Cup. Eight of Asia’s lowest ranked teams had competed and the winner would qualify straight into the Asian Cup finals, Asia’s equivalent of the European Championships. It was a shortcut to the continent’s biggest finals for Asia’s minnows. Palestine beat The Philippines by a single goal, a brilliant second half free kick by Ashraf Nu’man. They had reached the final without conceding a goal, too. But for the Palestinian national soccer team — a team recognized by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, since 1998 but not yet as a fully fledged country by the United Nations — it meant more than progress on the pitch. Ever since the Palestinian Football Association was recognized by FIFA — one of the first and only truly global organizations to recognize an entity called Palestine — soccer had reflected the shifting political situation around it: Occupation, allegations of terrorist links, arbitrary arrest, death, bombings, allegations of torture, hunger strikes, movement restrictions, exile, internecine warfare and failure. On the pitch the eleven men were a microcosm of the Palestinian experience. Palestine in the tunnel before 2014 World Cup match versus Afghanistan The goalscorer Ashraf Nu’man was from Bethlehem in the West Bank and had played for the champions Taraji Wadi al Nes before moving to the big money of the Saudi Premier League. Hussam Abu Salah was born in Israel, one of the country’s Arab citizens who make up 20% of the population. He played in the thriving West Bank Premier League, now professional and attracting many more Arab Israelis who felt increasingly alienated in a country where many viewed its Arabs citizens with suspicion. In the center of defense was Abdelatif Bahdari, a center back who had also moved to Saudi Arabia but was now playing in Jordan. He was from Gaza, where many Palestine’s believe their best soccer players come from. But Bahdari had frequently been prevented from playing national team games. Israeli forces regularly detained players at the border, for alleged security reasons, as they tried to leave to meet the squad before important matches away from home. Next to him stood Omar Jarun, a six foot five defender with a blonde mohawk. Jarun looked like a hometown quarterback. Born in Kuwait but raised in Peachtree City, Georgia in the U.S., to an American mother and a Jordanian Palestinian father, he nevertheless identified as Palestinian. In the absence of a mosque, he would pray in a function room at a local hotel, rented by Peachtree’s small Muslim community. He speaks in a broad southern accent and speaks no Arabic. After the referee blew for full time, the bench rushed the field to mark the greatest moment in Palestine’s short soccer’s history. The coach Jamal Mahmoud, a young Jordanian of Palestinian origin who had masterminded the victory, was picked up and thrown in the air before the team’s veteran captain, goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh, raising up the trophy. The trophy meant that, on Monday, Palestinian players would start their first ever Asian Cup campaign in the Australian city of Newcastle, against Asian champions Japan. Tens of millions will be watching, completing one of the most remarkable rises in world soccer. Rewind eight years, to the Palestinian city of Jericho in the West Bank, and the situation was very different.

Gaza Cup final 2009

It is the summer of 2006, a summer dominated by the Second Lebanon war. The windows outside the forlorn looking and hopefully named Jericho International stadium are smashed. Peeling posters of Yasser Arafat decay from the pitted concrete walls as a single line of fans shuffle through the stadium’s one working turnstile, paying seven Israeli shekels for a ticket. Inside, a handful of fans prayed to Mecca. There is one stand, half full with supporters as a team from the northern town of Tulkarem take on Wadi al Nes. This isn’t a league match but a cup game. Israeli movement restrictions and road blocks — imposed following the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000 — had made league fixtures all but impossible to fulfil. Since the late 1970s less than 10 seasons had been completed. But today it was the quarterfinals. The loser may not play another game for months. With no changing rooms the two teams dressed on the pitch, each squad sat around their coach receiving last minute instruction. Tulkarem are the clear favorites. The team consisted of a number of Palestinian internationals and were coached by Mohammed Sabah. Short and dressed in a tracksuit with a bushy moustache, Sabah and his players are separated from the crowd by a high metal fence. A line of Palestinian Authority policemen in riot gear add another layer of security. Kick off came and went without any movement. The referee was nowhere to be seen. Half an hour after the planned kick-off he still hadn’t arrived. A few minutes later the rotund man in black came puffing onto the pitch to a wall of jeers. He had been held up at a checkpoint.

Messi fan in Gaza, 2009

In 2006 soccer in Palestine mirrored the world around it. It was poor, fractured, beset by internal, intractable political and cultural differences and defined by its deteriorating relationship with Israel. When FIFA recognised the Palestine Football Association in 1998, it was greeted with jubilation. Sepp Blatter, in one of his first acts as FIFA president, flew to Gaza and was mobbed as he landed at the Rafah airstrip near the Egyptian border. Recognition was a huge political act as well as a sporting one. Palestine could now compete on the international stage, including the chance to reach the World Cup finals, equal to other countries. But the playing field was far from equal. FIFA had relaxed its rules on citizenship, allowing the Palestinians to call on its huge diaspora to fill its team sheet. An advert was placed in a German magazine looking for players, whilst a team of scouts scoured Chile — where a first division team whose identity was forged by Palestinian immigrants, Palestino, thrived — Sweden and the United States looking for eligible players. When qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany began, a multinational squad was assembled. The volatile security situation meant the team could not play any games on “home” soil, instead traveling and training in a third country; either Egypt, Qatar or the UAE. They thumped Chinese Taipei 8-0 and earned a respectable 1-1 draw with Iraq but players from Gaza would frequently be prevented from getting through the border, due to alleged security precautions by Israel. Whatever hope the Palestinians had of qualification ended when five Gaza-based players on their way to Doha for a game against Uzbekistan were held at the border in the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Beersheba. The Palestinians could barely scrape together 11 players. It was a miracle they only lost 3-0. Qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals ended in a similar manner, with the Palestinians claiming that they couldn’t field a full team for their game against Singapore. They forfeited the tie. The match in Jericho went all the way to penalties. As night fell, Wadi al Nes prevailed before the expensive-to-run and notoriously temperamental floodlights were turned off as soon as the last kick went in. Back then, the thought that Jerricho, Tulkarem, Ramallah or any other Palestinian city might aspire to being a stadium of international importance seemed like a joke. Fall out Ten months later, Sabah is sitting in the lobby of the his hotel in Amman, the capital of neighboring Jordan, devouring as much information from his newspaper as he could and wondering when he will be allowed home. The previous summer Sabah was coach of Tulkarem, but now he was also in charge of the Palestine national team at the West Asian Football Federation Championship, a regional tournament held every two years. His Palestine side had lost both of their group games to Iran and Iraq and had been eliminated. Their journey back, however, had been made impossible by events at home. “The main problem is the situation in Gaza as we have 13 players from there,” Sabah explains. “What has happened in the past week means they are very worried, stressed.”

Ball boys, Gaza, 2009

Tensions between Hamas, an Islamic military organization considered by many in the West to be a terrorist organization, and Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist movement of  Arafat, had simmered since the former’s parliamentary victory in 2006. Now Hamas was, after weeks of bloody fighting that had killed several hundred Palestinians, in total control of the Gaza Strip. The Israelis responded by closing the borders. Effectively, there were now two Palestinian entities at war with each other. “It’s very difficult at the moment as some of the players and coaches wanted to go back as their minds and their hearts are with their families in Gaza but they can’t because the border at Rafah is closed,” said Sabah. Unable to travel between Gaza and the West Bank, there were already essentially two national teams, one set of players training in Gaza, the other in the West Bank. He brought out his captain, Saeb Jendeya, who played in Gaza City. “Every second I am thinking about my family,” he said. “Every time I’m here I’m calling them in Gaza asking about the border, when they are going to open it and whether my family has food or not. “In the past two days it has been difficult for them to get food and I have five very young kids. And my salary from the government hasn’t been paid for 10 months.” The team were eventually allowed back in to the West Bank a few days later. It would be weeks before all 13 players would be allowed home. Sabah, the team’s coach, was later fired. The Gaza cup final

The Gaza Cup

By 2009 Hamas was entrenched in Gaza. The restrictions in and out of the strip had continued, through the civil war that saw Hamas rout Fatah in Gaza and through Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008 — designed, they said, to stop cross border rocket attacks aimed into Israel — that led to anywhere between 300 and 1,000 civilian deaths. The blockade and the internal fights had brought Gazan society to the brink of collapse. Gaza City was a hopeless place. Bullet holes, piles of rubble — once former housing blocks — and broken buildings sat untouched from the bombing that destroyed them months previously. The import of cement was banned in case it was used for military purposes. The black uniforms of Hamas now kept order on the streets, pacing in front of large, colourful murals of Palestinian martyrs. Huge piles of rubbish burned permanently, throwing up acrid plumes of thick black smoke. Manic children danced around them, throwing glass bottles at passers by. Gaza’s football league had managed to survive even the darkest of days of the conflict, but it couldn’t survive this season. The fallout between Hamas and Fatah had extended to soccer, where Gaza’s team had been run under the patronage of the two movements. Now all that was left was a “Dialogue and Tolerance'” cup between Al Shate and Al Salah Islamic Organization, organized by the clubs themselves, and resentment at the politicians that were trying to control the sport for their own ends. Ibraheem Abu Saleem, vice president of the PFA and the man in charge of football in Gaza, made some last minute phone calls from the PFA’s office on the morning of the cup final. These days they shared space with the Palestinian Olympic Committee after the HQ of both organizations were leveled in the on again, off again skirmishes and battles with Israel. Now, for Abu Saleem, the biggest threat to the game didn’t come from Israel. “We as sports people want to remove sport from politics but politicians on both sides – Hamas and Fatah – play on this. They try to make politics come into sport,” explained Abu Saleem. The schism meant that it was even harder for talented players from Gaza to leave for relative riches of the West Bank. “As a national team player I’ve had big difficulties in playing,” said Hamada Shbair, Al Shate’s captain who had been one of the 13 Palestine national team players from Gaza stuck in Jordan in 2007. “Political conflicts are the reason for this. I blame both sides [Fatah and Hamas].”

Security Gaza

Whilst soccer in Gaza was struggling, in the West Bank it was enjoying something of a renaissance. A few days later Jibril Rajoub sat behind his desk in a large villa in a quiet suburb of Ramallah, the colour of Jerusalem’s famous sandstone. He is stymied by an ugly cold, occasionally coughing roughly into a well used handkerchief. The president of the Palestine Football Association was a former National Security Advisor to Yasser Arafat – once known as the the hard man of the West Bank – who had spent 17 years in and out of Israeli jails for throwing a grenade at an army checkpoint before being exiled to Lebanon. He spoke fluent Hebrew and English and had also just been elected to the Fatah Central Committee, making him one of the most respected political figures in the West Bank. As president of the Palestine Football Association he had managed to persuade the Israelis to allow the building of a new national stadium – the Faisal al Husseini Stadium – in Al Ram on the outskirts of Ramallah right next to the Israeli separation barrier. The easing of Israeli checkpoints had allowed for a new professional league that was due to fully start the next year. A women’s league was started too and the first home match for the Palestine women’s national team attracted 16,000 fans, including 10,000 women. The men’s team played its first ever home match too, a friendly against Jordan, almost exactly a year previously. “Getting the league started here was not easy but we have 15 to 20,000 coming now to games from the north, the south, from areas that are difficult to travel from,” he explained proudly. The difference between Ramallah and Gaza City was stark. Ramallah looked like Las Vegas in comparison. Basic foodstuffs in Gaza were scarce; in Ramallah a sign stretched across one road proclaiming that the new Nintendo Wii was back in stock for just 1,690 shekels. For Rajoub, sport, and especially football, was a non-violent action that could help bring the dream of statehood close. “I think this is a rational decision by the Palestinian political leadership to focus on football,” he said. “We need to expose the Palestinian cause through football and the values and ethics of the game. I do believe this is the right way to make business and pave the way for statehood for the people. The non-violent struggle is more productive and fruitful to the Palestinian cause.” But the Palestinian cause had become divided. The blame for the failure of Gazan football to progress, Rajoub insisted, lay with Hamas. “In the West Bank we have two members of Hamas on the [PFA] board. We have teams for Hamas, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine],” he explained. “There is a wall here between politics and factionalism in sport [in the West Bank]. I think the same should happen in Gaza.” Back in Gaza, the “Dialogue and Tolerance” match at the Palestine Stadium in Gaza City ended in victory for Al Shate refugee camp. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza and a former Al Shate soccer player himself, attended the game and handed out the medals afterwards. He awarded the cup to Al Shate’s captain Hamada Shbair. “I told him [Haniyeh]: ‘You used to be a player, please solve this problem of the players quickly’,” Shbair later recounted. “He replied: ‘I hope so, I hope so, Inshallah’.” The Palestinian Football Association reached an agreement with Hamas the following year to allow the league to return. But the stadium, which was full that day with 5,000 supporters, banners and song, would later be destroyed by Israeli forces after rockets aimed for Tel Aviv were allegedly fired from the pitch.

Prayers in Gaza

Road to London Two years later Palestine played its first ever competitive home game, a 2012 London Olympic qualification match against Thailand. It was a chance to show the world that it could organize itself to an international standard. Yet some familiar problems endured. Four Gazan players were granted permission to play in the Thailand game, but eight were refused, half of the starting line up according to Palestine’s Tunisian coach Mokhtar Tilili who was himself denied entry to the West Bank until the night before the match. Many within the Palestine Territory’s government believed that soccer not only provided a symbol of nascent nationalism, but was also part of then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s attempts to normalize the economic and civil institutions of the state so that, if the need arose, he could announce unilateral independence. “People know Palestine throughout the world because of the national football team,” said Palestinian defender Nadim Barghouti. “It is a perfect way to prove to the rest of the world that we are human beings. We are not terrorists. In the past, all the world thought that Palestinians threw stones. I consider the players to be soldiers without weapons. We are playing for freedom in Palestine.”

Before Palestine's Olymic qualification match  in Ramallah, 2011

When the big day arrived, the coaches taking fans from across the West Bank to the match hugged the gray, graffiti-scarred separation barrier as they approached the Faisal al Husseini stadium. The wall was a mere 100 meters from the pitch, the stadium barely 4 kilometers from Jerusalem’s old city. Thousands poured inside three hours before kickoff, the sky dark from earlier rains, coating the fans, the seats and the stands in a thick but lightly colored mud. The police wore modern riot gear and pedantically removed poles from the supporters’ Palestinian flags, confiscating fizzy drinks and checking for weapons. Tight security and protocols were in place to prove that the Palestinians could organize a match to the newly required standard expected of competitive international football. Around the stadium, posters illustrated the importance that the Palestinian Authority placed on football; huge portraits of Arafat, the Dome of the Rock, President Mahmoud Abbas, Jibril Rajoub and Blatter all sat side by side. It took 45 minutes for the stadium to come to life when Abdul Hamid Abu Habib, a player from Gaza, volleyed in Palestine’s first goal. The captain took off his armband, kissed it and pointed towards the Prime Minister Fayyad, sitting in the crowd. “The national football team is a symbol of this country. It has that kind of significance, for sure. That [a player from Gaza scored] makes it all the more sweet,” Fayyad said whilst sheltering from the driving rain at half-time. But he urged a word of warning. “We have the second half now. If the score stays as it is, we have an extra half hour of football.” It proved prophetic. Chances came and went until the final whistle blew at 1-0; 1-1 on aggregate over two legs. The Prime Minister, with his white and black keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his neck, paced through the stand, watching every minute of extra time unfold. “I hate penalties,” he offered, rocking back on his heels with hands in pockets for protection against the freezing cold. “I won’t watch penalties. I’ll look this way!” He pointed to the sky. Fayyad was right not to watch. They lost on penalties.

12 Ramallah Olympics 2011 Palestine One fan takes defeat badly

Milestones There were other important milestones that marked the path to the Asian Cup in Australia. A few months after the Thailand match the Palestine Territory would host their first ever World Cup qualification match in the West Bank, against Afghanistan. The Afghan government had urged the team to boycott the match, claiming that it was de facto recognition of Israel by the backdoor. But the Afghanistan team ignored the calls and arrived at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan anyway. The players crowded at the windows of the coach to snap pictures of the huge Star of David flag fluttering at the border crossing before being waved through by Israeli border guards. Palestine qualified for the next round before narrowly losing to Thailand. The issue of player movement restrictions have persisted. One young talented player from Gaza, Mahmoud Sarsak, who had secured his dream move to a West Bank club, was arrested at the Erez Crossing after going to collect his papers. Israel said he was arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Islamic Jihad. He alleges he was tortured. An allegation the Israeli authorities strenuously deny. Israeli law allows Palestinians to be detained indefinitely and without trial. He was only released after going on hunger strike, where he lost half his body weight. He was never charged with any crime. “I spent three years in prison with no accusation,” Sarsak said in 2013 interview with CNN. “If I did have links I should have been brought to court. But in reality they had nothing on me. This was a false charge under which they kept me in prison. I lost three years of my life.” And before the Challenge Cup success in the Maldives, the coach Jamal Mahmoud and his assistant were refused entry back into the West Bank and had to wait in Jordan for two weeks whilst one of the team’s players, Sameh Mar’aba, was arrested and held for eight months. The Israeli authorities claimed he confessed that he had met leading Hamas figures in Doha and was found with a large amount of money, a cell phone and written messages. According to multiple reports, the Israeli security agency Shin Bet provided evidence to the Israel Defence Force’s legal department prompting Israel’s culture and sport minister, Limor Livnat, to write to Blatter, who had recently met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise the issue of Palestinian player restrictions and arrests. In the letter, Livnat wrote: “I am confident that you will find this information worrisome and constituting clear evidence of the misuse of sports in a fashion that threatens the security of Israeli civilians.” Back in May the PFA denied the charge and denied there was a confession. Mar’aba was again prevented from joining the squad in Australia after his release on December 6th. The PFA denounced the move in a statement on their website by calling the Israeli decision to prevent Mar’aba from joining the squad as “contrary to all international conventions and laws, especially the regulations of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA which ensure freedom of movement for all players around the world.” However, Israeli authorities believe there was good reason for imposing travel restrictions on Mar’aba. “In May 2014, Sameh Mar’aba was charged with, inter alia, bringing Hamas funds into the region and contact with the enemy. Upon conviction, he was sentenced to prison. He was subsequently released on December 6, 2014,” a senior Israeli security source told CNN.

“Under these circumstances and in light of additional information regarding Mar’aba, the professional echelon’s position is that his travelling abroad constitutes a risk to the security of the region and therefore it was recommended to officials from the Civil Administration not to allow him to travel abroad for security reasons.” Mar’aba, a promising young striker, will watch the tournament in the West Bank.  He has denied the charges against him.

The conflict between the PFA and Israeli authorities again highlights the mistrust that has existed on both sides for decades‎. The Israeli authorities claim that travel restrictions are valid, whilst others believe that the restrictions can be seen in a different light. “We’ve seen a marathon runner and young musicians prevented from travelling recently and the broad term “security” is used,” Chatham House’s Professor Yossi Mekelberg told CNN. “I don’t see the risk. It’s a bit questionable.” There have been other loses too. Coach Jamal Mahmoud unexpectedly quit in September.

Yet, for all the restrictions and privations, the improvements in Palestinian football, especially in the West Bank, have been huge. When the Palestine team take to the pitch in Newcastle on Monday it will be the culmination of a 17 year journey over some of the roughest terrain imaginable. But whatever the score, the goal has been achieved. The Palestinians, for once, will begin as equals to those around it.

You can read the article on CNN’s website here.

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