Saturday, April 1, 2017

Nakba, the Oslo Agreement and the Dispersion of Palestinian Sports

Issam Khalidi

  Throughout decades sports reflected the Palestinian reality; it portrayed this reality with all its details throughout different historical stages. By 1948, there were some 65 athletic clubs in Palestine; approximately 55 of them were members of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation (APSF). These clubs had a tremendous impact on the lives of Palestinian young people (members were mostly, but not exclusively, male), shaping their character and preparing them for social and political involvement.[1]
     Behind every Palestinian there is a great general fact: that he once - and not so long ago - lived in a land his own called Palestine, which no longer his homeland.[2]   The dispersion of the Palestinians was not a fact of nature but a result of specific force and strategies. [3] "Other dispossessed people in history cannot be compared, except in a few obvious ways, with the twentieth-century Palestinians. This is not a matter of who suffered more, or who lost more; such comparisons are fundamentally indecent. What I mean is that no people - for bad or for good - is so freighted with multiple, and yet unreachable or indigestible, significance as the Palestinians," wrote Edward Said.[4] The Palestinian people were not mere victims, as so many accounts have presented them (although, to be sure, fate has not treated kindly), but were active participants in the creation of their people's collective character. [5]
    Before 1948, the majority of the territory called Palestine was inhabited beyond any doubt by a majority of Arabs, who after Israel came into being were either dispersed (they left, or were made to leave) or were enfolded within the state as a non-Jewish minority. After 1967, Israel occupied more Arab Palestinian territory. As a result, there are at present three types of Arab Palestinians: those inside pre-1967 Israel, plus those inside the Occupied Territories, plus those elsewhere outside former Palestine.[6]
   The Nakba (catastrophe of 1948) was an almost a fatal blow for the Palestinian sports, which caused the destruction of sports infrastructure and the dispersion of cadre and athletes. However, Palestinian sports had the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, this resilience was due to the previous experience and the severity of the dispersion and dispossession. This resiliency was not limited to sports but included other cultural and social aspects.
   The day-to-day workings of Palestinian life in exile, unlike that inside Israel, have obviously been distributed unevenly between the host country, the international apparatus for dealing with refugee operations, and the Palestinians themselves. [7] Their [Palestinians] lives [in exile] have been made unbearable because they have no roots where they are now. Their horizons are formed by international agencies like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), by refugee camps in one or another Arab country, by their immediate (and widely differing) circumstances.[8] From the late sixties, then, Palestinians encountered the triple problem raised by their dispersion: their aspiration to self-determination, absence of a secure and possible territorial base, and the need to set up a Palestinian authority which if possible would not get involved in struggles with the local authority. [9]
   The phenomena of dispersion of Palestinian sports was represented in different forms: First: the transfer of the center of gravity of the Palestinian sports movement from Gaza to Jordan (1948 – 1967) to Lebanon, Tunisia, Gaza and ended in Ramallah. Second: the dispersion of the headquarters of athletic federations, an example would be the headquarters of handball federation that used to be in Kuwait until 1979, then it was dissolved and moved to Syria and then moved back to Kuwait with a new board committee. Third: dispersion of the athletes. The Palestinian national teams were represented by players from different Shitat (diaspora) countries. During the Pan Arab Games in Cairo, the Palestinian delegation was represented by athletes living in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. This would apply to all competitions which Palestinian delegations participated.[10]
    In 1968, a decision was made by the PLO to form the Palestine Supreme Council for Youth Care.  In 1969, few branch committees were established in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  After 1970, the headquarters of this committee was moved from Amman to Lebanon.  A new supreme council was formed from qualified Palestinian athletic leaders in Lebanon.  New clubs were founded in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Athletic and scouts’ activities started to rise.  At its first conference at Suq al-Gharb in Beirut in 1974, the Supreme Council decided to change the name to Supreme Council of Youth and Sports.
     After the PLO has moved from Jordan to Lebanon, Palestine Football Associations was founded in coordination with PLO. At that time, all players have been selected from all Diaspora except West Bank and Sector Gaza. There are numerous of examples about selecting players from different places. In a chess tournament in Greece in 1984 the Palestinian players were represented from Dubai, Iraq and Syria. In the chess Olympiad in Dubai in 1986 the Palestinian delegation was represented Ala' Musa from Lebanon, Hanna Bouja from Honduras, and other two players from Kuwait. In some cases, the headquarters and the head of a federation were in different locations. As example the headquarters of Palestinian Weightlifting Association was in Lebanon while its head was in Libya. [11]
   As a result of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes.  Today, an estimated 395,000 Palestinian refugees reside in Lebanon, 56% of whom live in official camps, while the rest (43%) resides in unofficial camps and in local communities.  The conditions in which the Palestinians in Lebanon live are commonly perceived to be the worst of those for Palestinian refugees in the region, due to limited employment, basic health conditions, and the lack of social services.  The camp itself becomes part of the “identity” of Palestinians, with terms such as “insiders” and “outsiders” used to indicate nationalistic loyalties.[12]
    In adversity and exile, national groups in nuce become national groups in fact. The circumstances of dispersion in so many different countries prevented the Palestinians from becoming a socially homogeneous people. Even the camp dwellers slowly entered the societies around them: the more fortunate went to universities, founded business, and became professionals. But the fact of loss—even the commonly suppressed fact of loss—created an authentic community set apart from the host society. My own experiences were typical of some exiles in that for a long time the general Arab umbrella covered my specific history, adequately it seemed; but at some points I, like more and more Palestinians, saw our lives and our present circumstances apart from everything else in the Arab world. [13]
   Political conditions in these countries where Palestinian refugees lived, and the relations between the regimes, and the PLO, had their impacts on sports and football.  In 1968, a decision was made by the PLO to form the Palestine Supreme Council for Youth Care; the PLO member Ibrahim Sukkar signed this decree.  Farook al-Qadoomi (member of the executive committee of PLO) assigned Ibrahim al-Zard for secretary of the committee.  In 1969, few branch committees were established in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  After 1970, the headquarters of this committee was moved from Amman to Lebanon.  A new supreme council was formed from qualified Palestinian athletic leaders in Lebanon.  The council started to remove the impacts of the war; new clubs were founded in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Athletic and scouts activities started to rise.
   The first conference of the Supreme Council of Youth Care was held in Beirut in Suq al-Gharb in 1974 new executive committee members were elected at this conference. Also, at this conference the name had been changed to the "Supreme Council of Youth and Sports". The war in Lebanon had negative impact on sports not only in Lebanon; it affected all Palestinian youth activities in other countries.  In 1976, the location of the supreme council moved to Damascus. The second conference was held in 1978. No other conference was held after that, due to the political conditions and the transfer of the headquarters from Beirut to Tunisia in 1982. 
    The absence of a 'territorial base' had had its negative impacts on Palestine's application to join  FIFA. After 1948,  Palestine Sports Federation PSF continued to exist.[14] Documents which were found in FIFA’s archive show that even though the application of the PSF was rejected, PSF decided to continue applying for the affiliation with FIFA. No further information about this application was mentioned; however, obviously FIFA rejected the application.
   In the 1950’s and 1960’s sports in Gaza reached a reasonable level. In 1962, the athletic leadership decided to form Al-Ittihad al-Riyadi al-Falastini li Korat al-Qadam (Palestine Sports Football Federation - PSFF).
   The affiliation of PSFF with FIFA required that Palestine had to have at least five federations affiliated with international federations. At that time ten federations existed: boxing, track and field, volley ball, Basketball, handball, weightlifting, wrestling, shooting, skating and ice hockey.  Some of these federations have been accepted in international federations, while others have been rejected.  In August 1963 a letter was signed by the secretary of the Arab PSFF Elias Manneh and sent to the Secretary of FIFA. FIFA sent a letter to the United Nations, which had been forwarded by the European Office of the United Nations in Geneva, informing the UN that Palestine Sports Football Federation, with headquarters in Gaza, has requested affiliation with FIFA, and asked for clarification about Gaza legal status, Claiming that under the General Armistice Agreement (signed at Rhodes on 24 February 1949), Gaza is a “territory under the control” of Egypt (then the United Arab Republic).
   On the 28th of May, 1965, the PSFF (or Palestine Football Association PFA) received a telegram from FIFA informing them about the rejection of their application:
We firmly object exepting [sic. accepting] a District called Gaza as a member of FIFA.  There is no country called Palestine, therefore Gaza cannot be in Palestine.  The exeptance [sic. acceptance] of a part of a country as an independent member is contrary to the FIFA regulations.
   In 1971 Palestine Football Association was re-established. As it was mentioned, the PFA had three attempts to join FIFA, but its applications were rejected.  In 1978, PFA once again submitted its application to FIFA. The application was attached with all requirements, such as the PFA statutes. PFA did not succeed in gaining the membership.  However, in 1979, it made another attempt, but its application was again hobbled by different obstacles, such as the refusal of the affiliation of the Palestine Olympic Committee with the IOC.  PFA continued its communication with the Arab Football Association (AFA), established in 1974 (Palestine joined AFA in 1974), which offered enormous support for the affiliation of PFA in FIFA.  In order to fulfill FIFA’s requirements, one of the Arab countries agreed to have the headquarters of PFA on its land in order to gain legal consent, and to have its own field where it could manage tournaments.  In 1989, PFA was able to get permission from the Iraqi Football Association, allowing it to have its headquarters in Baghdad. In addition, PFA started to hold its own tournament, on its own field, in this city.  PFA asked for support from the AFA to request from FIFA the affiliation of PFA.  However, it failed another time.  But, the PFA did not lose hope. In 1993, it applied again, depending on the new political conditions (ratification of the Oslo Agreement) and on the admission of the Palestine Olympic Committee in the IOC as observer.  Again, FIFA refused the application. Over a year and a half later, in May 1995, the PFA was granted the status of provisional member in FIFA. [15] Three years later, at FIFA’s 51st Congress, held in Paris in June 1998, PFA joined FIFA.[16] The fifth attempt was the successful attempt. Since 1946,  Palestine had been waging a long struggle to get its football association admitted to FIFA.
    In his book "The Question of Palestine" 1980 Edward Said wrote "It is a matter of national pride that today's Palestinians is better schooled in the ways of political democracy than any other Arab, and this despite dispersion and exile."[17] The focus of Palestinian politics shifted from the refugee communities in the surrounding Arab states to the Occupied Territories, marginalizing the refugees and their issues, particularly the right of return.  At the same time, the PA emerged as the locus of political activity at the expense of the PLO. As a result, many of the funds previously directed to the PLO were diverted to the PA. Perhaps most importantly, the PLO was transformed from a revolutionary group, seeking change through armed struggle, into an international political actor, whose survival depended more upon its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community than its popularity amongst the Palestinians. [18]
   Prior to 1993, most of social-athletic in the Diaspora were under PLO's control. This included clubs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip some of which were funded by Fatah. The focus on the West Bank as the center of political activity also contributed to the decline of the PLO. Many Palestinian refugees, especially those who had been displaced in 1948, began to believe that the PLO no longer represented their interests. [19] This included sports, for lately, many Palestinians in the diaspora believe that they are marginalized when the West Bank became the center of sports activities. 
   At the same time that the public expressed widespread support for the Oslo process, this hardcore minority voiced vitriolic opposition to it. Even among the founding fathers of Fatah itself - not to mention members of the Democratic Front, the Popular Front, and the Islamic Movement - important figures, such as Hani al-Hasan and Farouk Kaddumi, completely rejected the agreement. They saw the construction of the Palestine Authority, and perhaps afterward also of a nominal Palestinian state, in such a small part of historic Palestine, in a torn and divided territory, as a disaster. The new state, if it ever emerged, would be a vassal of Israel. Major opposition to the agreement also came from Palestinians in the ghurba, diaspora, who felt that the PLO leadership had abandoned them by implying a surrender of their right of return (al-awda). They saw the right of return as the central tenet of the Palestinian diaspora experience- the basic right of every person and collectively that had been ripped from the Palestinian homeland by force.[20]  
   As for the PNC [Palestinian National Counsel], it served as the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) until the PA was established in 1994. Propped up by international funds, the PA was initially formed as a means to an end, that being ‘final status’ negotiations and a Palestinian State. Instead, it became a status quo in itself, and its institutions, which largely reflected the political interests of a specific branch within Fatah, replaced the PLO, the PNC, together with all other institutions that expressed a degree of democracy and inclusiveness. [21]
    The Oslo agreements and the founding of the Palestine Authority emphasized and sharpened the differences between Palestinians remaining in exile (ghurba) and those in various parts of the homeland, between refugees and permanent residents, and even between the small minority of exiles who enjoyed the privilege of returning to their homeland together with Arafat in 1994 and those who remained outside Palestine. On top of all that were distinctions among Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel --whether or not they were refugees. The creation of self-governing authority only exacerbated these differences, as Palestinians in historic Palestine were again divided between different centers of rule after a generation of being united under Israeli governance. Paradoxically, both the differences and the unity within the Palestinian people were simultaneously deepened. [22]
    Despite dispersion and exile, Palestinian sports, prior to the Oslo Agreement enjoyed  more democracy and integration than today. What is happening today is that some parts of Palestinian Diaspora (especially in Lebanon) feels neglected and marginalized . Palestine Football Association's (based in Ramallah)    focus was and still on the West Bank. The second Football Association has been established in Lebanon  (PFA in Diaspora - Lebanon Branch الاتحاد الفلسطيني لكرة القدم في الشتات فرع لبنان). Obviously, a lack of coordination  between these two associations is existing. 
    When comparing between the situations in Gaza and the West Bank before and after the Oslo Agreement, one will easily notice the increasing gap between the two as a result of the obstacle that the occupation put in place.  Due to the settlement, checkpoints, and the separation wall the West Bank was torn. This had led to the dispersion of the Palestinian sports. Isolating Jerusalem was another big problem. However, the conflict between Fatah and Hamas was biggest internal problem that troubled all Palestinian aspects of life including sports. This conflict did not only dispersed the sports movement but weakened it.


[1] Issam Khalidi, “Body and Ideology: Early Athletics in Palestine: 1900-1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly 27 (2007): 44-58.
[2]Edward Said,The Question of Palestine, (NY, Vintage Books: 1980) ,p. 119.
[3] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine,
[4] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, 122.
[5] Baruck Kimmerling, Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People, (London: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. xxvi
[6] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine,  46.
[7]Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, 131.
[8] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, 130.
[9] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, 133.
[10] Issam Khalidi, One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine, (Amman: Dar Al-Shorook 2013).
[11] Khalid I'jjawi, Al-Haraka al-Riyadiyya al-Fhalastiniyya fi al-Shitat (Palestinian Sports Movement in Diaspora) (Damascus: Al-Dar al-Wataniyya al-Jadida) p. 487.
[12] Manifestations of Identity: (The Lived Reality of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon), Edited by    Mohammad Ali Khalidi, Institute of Palestine Studies. Beirut, 2010 P.36.
[13] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, 135.
[14]The Palestine Sports Federation was located in the current Gaza Sports Club, in the top floor. It was separate from the other sports federations.
[15]FIFA’s Archive, “Letter from FIFA to Palestine Football Federation.” June 1st, 1995.
In the meeting held in Zurich on 31st May 1996, FIFA Executive Committee decided to ask the FIFA Congress 1996 to confirm the status.
[16]Minutes of the 51st Congress, held in Paris, France, 7 June 1998 at 16.00 hours, 8 June 1998 at 09.30 hours.
[17] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, 233.
[19] Mazen Masri, The PLO and the crises of representation, October 15 2010,
[20]Baruck Kimmerling, Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People, p. 337.
[21] Ramzy Baroud, Foreign Policy Journal, Jan 6, 2016.  Palestine After Abbas: The Future of  a People at Stake.
[22] Baruck Kimmerling, Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People, p. 403.


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