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Palestinians mourn 'future of football' shot by an Israeli sniper

Israeli forces kill star Palestinian footballer Ahmed Daraghma - who dreamed of playing for his country - during Nablus raid
Palestinian women mourn Ahmed Daraghma during his funeral in the West Bank city of Nablus, 22 December 2022 (AP)
Palestinian women mourn Ahmed Daraghma during his funeral in the West Bank city of Nablus, 22 December 2022 (AP)
By in
Tubas, Palestine

In the hours that followed the news that Israeli forces had killed 23-year-old footballer Ahmed Daraghma, his family was devastated, as their social media feeds flooded with photos of the latest "martyr" in Palestine - their son. 

Daraghma's cousin, Muwaffaq Abu Sayyaj, said the family only began to understand what had taken place when hundreds of people surrounded the footballer's house in Tubas, northeast of Nablus, before dawn on Thursday, in solidarity with the family.

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Daraghma was shot by an Israeli sniper four times on Thursday night during clashes in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus, following a raid by the Israeli army and settlers on the religious site of Joseph's Tomb.

"His fans, his friends, his community, they all came to his home to stand and support us because they love Ahmed," Sayyaj told Middle East Eye.

Daraghma was only five games into the season, playing as an attacking midfielder for the West Bank Premier League club Thaqafi Tulkarm.

As the leading goal scorer for his club, he was seen as a beacon of hope not just by his family, but also by his team and community, who believed he had the skills to make it into Palestine's national side. 

“He had always dreamed of playing on the Palestinian national team and putting Palestine on the map,” Daraghma's coach, Mahmoud Daraghma, told MEE.

Now that dream has been cruelly ended. 

'This was not self-defence'

On Thursday night, armed clashes broke out in the streets between the Israeli military and Palestinian resistance fighters. They exchanged fire as the sizable army presence made its way through the outskirts of Nablus, to Joseph's Tomb.

"As usual, the people of Nablus were defending the area," Sayyaj said, in reference to the armed confrontations that often take place as a result of Israeli settlers using the army's protection to invade the Palestinian city.

'He had always dreamed of playing on the Palestinian national team and putting Palestine on the map'
- Mahmoud Daraghma, coach

"First, he got shot in the foot. Then, when he tried to escape, the soldiers shot him another three times in the back. They killed him on purpose; this was not self-defence," he added.

"And after they shot him, the Israelis would not let the paramedics treat him."

During the confrontation, Israeli soldiers used live ammunition, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas, wounding 24 Palestinians, Wafa reported.

Five other Palestinians were shot as they tried to block Israeli troops from passing, three with live ammunition, with two sustaining severe wounds. 

Israeli forces said Palestinians hurled explosives at soldiers who entered the city and soldiers returned fire. No Israeli injuries were reported.

Hamas, the de-facto rulers in the blockaded Gaza Strip, said in a statement that Ahmed was a political party member. The group did not specify if he was fighting when the Israeli military killed him. 

Football under occupation

Following Daraghma's killing, an outpouring of sorrow flooded Palestinian social media, as people grieved the death of a young footballer with a promising career ahead of him. 

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on the Federation Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) to condemn Israel for the killing, saying that the Israeli occupation authorities were responsible for the crime.

Susan Shalabi, the vice-president of the Palestinian Football Association, said that Daraghma  was not the first nor would be the last Palestinian footballer whose dreams would be snuffed out by Israel. 

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Shalabi added that the problem that sports in Palestine suffered from was not just players being killed by the military, but the occupation itself. 

Noting the Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, she said: "They don't let people move between cities in Palestine. Soldiers have often stopped players at checkpoints, making them late for their matches.

"If you are in Gaza, and your national team is training in Ramallah, Israel will not give you the permission you need to practice in Ramallah."

Shalabi added it was not only challenging for Palestinian football players living under military occupation to enjoy football but also for their fans, who are often targeted during games. 

"Tear gas and sound bombs have been thrown at football stands during matches. In Gaza, they also target the infrastructure, destroying stands," she said.

Killing dreams

For Palestine, football is an opportunity for young people to escape the occupation and put their country on the map. 

"That sniper didn't just kill Ahmed's dream but the country's dream. He was the future of Palestine's national football league," Sayyaj said.

Mahmoud, who had followed Ahmed's progress since he first started playing as a child, commended his commitment and love for the sport.

"I trained him in [his hometown] Tubas when he was young. He quickly started playing against the older kids thanks to his skill," the coach said.

'Tear gas and sound bombs have been thrown at football stands during matches. In Gaza, they also target the infrastructure, destroying stands'
- Susan Shalabi, Palestinian Football Association

Daraghma had scored all six goals in the five games his team had played this season.

"Both professionally and personally, Ahmed worked hard to achieve his skill level," said Mahmoud.

"Two weeks ago, he told me he was getting lots of different offers to play in other leagues, but decided that he wanted to play with us and make our team one of the best in Palestine."

2022 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem since the United Nations started recording fatalities in 2005. 

Over 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank this year. 

Israel's "shoot-to-kill" policy has been condemned for years by human rights groups. As Israel ushers in the most right-wing government in its history, extrajudicial killings of Palestinians are becoming more frequent. 

Israel's incoming national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has encouraged the killing of Palestinians in cold blood, most recently hailing the soldier who shot a Palestinian four times at point-blank range as a hero.   

"The Israelis don't differentiate between football players, journalists, doctors and paramedics. They kill any and all Palestinians. It doesn't matter if you are a fighter or not," Shalaby said.

"This is a TV series in Palestine, and killing Ahmed is just another episode. Israel wants a land without a people."

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