Palestine Cup final takes place for first time in 15 years
GAZA - A football team from Gaza’s Shejayeh returned to the besieged Palestinian enclave on Sunday, after having lost out to Hebron’s Al Ahly in Friday’s closely fought Palestine Cup final.
Al Ahly will now go forward to play in the Asian Football Confederation Cup (AFC), a tournament always enthusiastically watched by Palestinian football fans.
The first part of the two-legged final on 6 August saw Al Ahly become the first Palestinian football team from the West Bank in 15 years to receive permission from Israel to play an away-game in the Gaza Strip.
That match ended 0-0, with Al Ahly winning the return fixture in Hebron 2-1. The second leg was initially due to take place two weeks ago but was postponed after Israeli authorities refused travel permits to four of the Gaza-based players.
Despite there being fierce sporting rivalry between the two clubs, the tie brought together Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza for an opportunity of national solidarity.
“This was a dream for us that a West Bank sports club might be permitted to meet on the soccer field with our friends and fellow-Palestinians, representing one nation,” Al Ahly Club Director Kifah al-Shareef told Middle East Eye.
“The importance of this game is to show how sport can unite one nation, and we hope politicians will also unite as a result.”
Shareef said that his team were only allowed to enter Gaza for the first leg of the final after FIFA had intervened to pressure Israel into allowing the match to take place.
“We are able to achieve our dream, because movement and access is the legitimate right of all Palestinians,” he said.
The two matches provided joy, amid much desperation and destruction, for Palestinians who waved their national flag and sang songs. Over 10,000 fans showed up at the Yarmouk stadium in Gaza City to watch what people viewed as a historic moment between two separated Palestinian football clubs divided by the occupying military power of Israel.
The Hebron team was reportedly allowed entry to besieged Gaza as part of a deal for the Palestinian Football Association to withdraw its proposal last May for the suspension of Israel from FIFA over alleged violations of international law.
Withdrawing that proposal brought huge backlash against the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. The PA claimed at the time that they withdrew the proposal to suspend Israel because they did not have enough votes to get it through FIFA.
A prominent sports commentator praised the Palestinian Cup final as being an example of how football can effectively raise political issues.
“The mere existence of the game means above all else that the outspoken bravery of Palestinian football players and their supporters has produced results,” said Dave Zirin, Sports Editor for The Nation.
“Israel is vulnerable in international circles when it cracks down on football players because it violates the most basic principle of sports: fairness and a level playing field. It is so very important that the Palestinian football players of Gaza keep pushing for their right to play without interference. The sports world is watching Israel, and they know it.”
Palestinian sports activists have claimed that Israel restricts the movement of football players to harass and disable sports clubs, citing a case from last year when Israeli troops raided the headquarters of Palestinian Football Association, in the West Bank.
Last November, when Israeli military raided the Palestinian Football Association headquarters, Israeli soldiers also shot two Palestinian football players whose careers were ended by the injuries they sustained.
Despite the ongoing battle with Israel to allow Palestinians the freedom to practice sport without restrictions, the Al Ahly club president said the match was a moment to enjoy unity among the West Bank and Gaza.
“With determination and steadfastness we achieved our desire by having this big Palestinian sport’s wedding” Shareef said.
Rafy, a 24-year-old fan from Gaza, who supports Shejayeh, said he just hopes that his team won’t lose motivation to play well and win in the future, despite Israeli restrictions on the club’s movements.
“If they give up under pressure from Israel, then how are we going to get chance to enjoy playing outside, against Asian teams?” he asked.
Gaza has always been hub for sports, but many of its clubs have been destroyed over the years. The enclave’s main football stadium is still undergoing slow reconstruction after being hit by Israeli F16 missiles during Israel’s assault in 2012.