This article has been published in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation. Edited by Micheal Chaban and Ayalet Waldman, (New York: Harper, 2017) p. 191 – 207.
In a 2009 TV commercial for the Israeli cell phone carrier Cellcom, a jeep drives alongside a gray concrete wall, which looks exactly like the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Suddenly something lands on the hood of the car. The soldiers jump out of the jeep in alarm, but then one of them reassures the other, “It’s just a soccer ball.” The commanding officer orders a soldier to return it, and the soldier kicks it over the thirty-foot-high cement wall. A few seconds later it arcs right back over, and this time the soldiers shout, “Come on guys, game on! The feel-good melody swelling beneath their voices has soothed their tension.
“And everything is sweet and cool!” the singer tells us, to make sure we get it. Again and again, the soldiers kick the ball to the other side of the wall, and it comes back. In the end, a narrator announces, “What does everyone want, after all? Just a little fun!”
A few days after Cellcom’s commercial first aired, Palestinians from Bil’in decided to examine the scenario it depicts and what it might look like in the real world. In their video, the same beachy, acoustic soundtrack plays, Palestinians juggle a soccer ball and then kick it over the fence. In return, the Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas. The clip ends with a close-up of the ball, stuck in the barbed wire.
It is easy to analyze how Cellcom’s commercial reflects the desires, conscious or not, of Cellcom’s customers: all we want is to have a little fun, to play a little game, but we don’t want to see the faces of what might actually be happening on the other side of the proverbial pitch. We want it behind a wall of protection.
You might wonder how a large company could be so tone deaf. I’ve certainly wondered, and I think the answer lies in soccer. Cellcom would not normally have dared to step into the political minefield of the West Bank crisis, but soccer defuses the mine, because everyone loves to play. The game is the pure representation of freedom, fun, and community, the most popular sport on earth, one which everyone loves, no matter one’s race or religion. However, the Palestinians in their video force us to confront a different side of the story: everyone loves to play, but not everyone can.
If the conflict in Israel and Palestine is the summertime pickup game that Cellcom suggests it is, then who is winning, and who writes the rules? The stories of the soccer players themselves shed light on these questions. Sameh Maraabah, a rising star in Palestinian soccer who led his team to second place in the West Bank league last year, is one player who has learned how fickle success can be in the profession he might have once thought of as a “sport.”
On April 28, 2014, when Maraabah tried to cross the border from Jordan to the West Bank on the way back from training camp with his Palestinian teammate, he was arrested by Israeli authorities. According to Shabab, the Israeli security services, when Maraabah was in Doha, Qatar, the location of the training camp, he met a man called Talal Sharim, a former Hamas member turned Israeli prisoner, who has been released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. Shabak alleges that Sharim gave Maraabah “money, a cell phone, and written messages” to deliver to a man whom Israeli newspapers called “a senior Hamas activist.” Limor Livnat, then Israel’s minister of culture and sport, sent a letter to international soccer’s governing body, FIFA, decrying the exploitation of soccer for terrorism, and Maraabah was sent to jail in the Nablus region for eight months.
Immediately after his release, in January 2015, Maraabah was invited to join the Palestinian national team on its trip to the Asian Football Confederation Cup in Australia. At the Allenby Bridge border with Jorden, he was arrested again. After being held for five hours, he was sent back to Qalqilya while his team went on the lose all three of the games it played.
Maraabah’s next trip was to Malaysia, that June, for a World Cup qualifier. As if for the sake of routine, he was stopped at the Allenby Bridge. This time the rest of the players protested, organizing a spur-of-the-moment sit-in at the border crossing, announcing they would not move until Maraabah was allowed to pass. Meanwhile, officials from the Palestinian Football Association contacted FIFA and asked for help. Eventually, Israel issued a permit for Maraabah to cross, and he scored two goals in his team’s 6-0 victory over Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
To be sure, Maraabah is far from the first athlete to have his life upended by Israeli authorities, nor is his example the most egregious; rather, it’s alarming because of how typical it is, an occupation story in a nutshell. The West Bank is filled with such nutshells—wherever you turn you will crack one beneath your shoe.
Arrests of youth and adult soccer players in Palestine are so common that they don’t even make the news. The players are usually accused of stone throwing and are often held for up to eight months before they are released. Husam Karakre, a sixteen-year-old player from al-Bireh, is still in detention at the time of this writing. Soldiers broke into his family’s home one night and arrested him for allegedly throwing stones at IDF vehicles. Six players from one team, Beit Umar, were arrested last year, and the team was relegated to a lower division at the end of the season. Then there’s the story of three players, Muhammad Qweis from the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, Sami al-Daur, who lives in the town of Samu’s near Hebron, and Fadi a -Sahrif from Gaza, and their border troubles. A-Sharif, who played for Hilal Gaza, was injured in a game and was granted a permit for knee ligament surgery in a hospital in East Jerusalem. His friend al-Daur, originally from Gaza, asked a-Sharif to bring him his laptop computer, and coordinated with Qweis, who had dislocated a shoulder and was being treated in the same hospital, to get the laptop to him. The three were arrested and imprisoned for a week, the laptop was scanned thoroughly (nothing suspicious was found), and al-Daur was expelled from Samu’a back to Gaza, losing his place on the team and thus his livelihood.
Mahmoud Sarsak, a player from the south of the Gaza Strip who had signed a two-year contract with a team from the West Bank, was taken by Israeli authorities out of the cab that was driving him from Gaza. He ended up serving three years in jail but was never tried. Only a 101-day-long hunger strike and the intervention of soccer fans and players from around the world (including Celtic FC fans in Scotland and the veteran French soccer players Eric Cantona and Lilian Thuram), the heads of FIFA, and Amnesty International could bring about his release. Interested in asking Sarsak about what happened? You can find him selling falafel in London.
You cannot ask the Palestinian soccer legend Ahid Zakut anything. He was killed in his home by an IDF jet fighter missile during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. He was a star in the 1980s and 1990s and played on the first-ever Palestinian national team. He coached Riadi Gaza to a championship title and went on to become a popular sports show presenter on Palestinian TV. He had no relationship with Hamas or connection to politics. But Israel has blurred the lines among politics, soccer, and war, if indeed they ever existed.
Israeli authorities exert power over Palestinians, be they professional soccer players or not. Israel controls not only its own border crossings but also those between Jordan and the West Bank. It also controls the narratives that its domestic media propagates.
Israel’s strategies for marginalizing Palestinian soccer illustrate the fight over the narrative. A Palestinian meets a Palestinian meets a Palestinian in Qatar. A Palestinian receives money from a Palestinian in Qatar. These facts are undisputed. But what is their meaning – was it a terrorist rendezvous? Is Hamas member always and only a terrorist? Is a released prisoner (who was released in a deal before finishing his term) necessarily a terrorist? Is a sum of money always meant for terrorist activity, or could it be a donation to a soccer team? Would a terrorist group deliver money, a cell phone, and “written messages” through a soccer player? The Israeli answers to all of the above are yes. The Palestinians answers are no.
Israel’s suspicions are understandable, and at least partly justifies. But to throw up our hands and say that there’s no way to approximate the truth would not just be defeatist but also wrong. I don’t whether the money was meant for running the Qalqulya soccer club, as the Palestinians claimed, or for Hamas terrorist activity, as the Israelis did, but I tend to believe one story over the other. Why do I believe the Palestinian side? Because over the years I have stepped on many nutshells, many stories, in which Israel exerted too much power and showed too little fairness. A whole life living this conflict has taught me that on the Israeli side the finger is light on the trigger, its power is blinding, and in the name of security, the nation often loses its way.
The Palestinian soccer leagues are not without their rivalries. As in every country, “derby” games between neighboring teams are especially explosive: al-Amari refugee camp versus Tulkarm city, Silwan versus Hilal al-Quds in Jerusalem, Balata refugee camp versus the Askar refugee camp in Nablus. Yet Palestinian anger over the occupation trumps even these rivalries. Take the case of what, in recent years, has been the most bitter rivalries. Take the case of what, in recent years, has been the most bitter rivalry, the one between Shabab al-Khalil and Shabab al-Thahriyeh won the 2015 championship and al-Khalil 2016. Both teams come from the Hebron area, which, as the home of half of the twelve teams in the first division, is considered Palestine’s soccer city. The derby between al-Khalil and al-Thahriyeh is called the Palestinian El Classicos, after the match between the perennial Spanish titans FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. In recent seasons some of the Palestinian El Classicos have ended in blows between the fans in the stands, virtual blows on social media, and damaged cars outside the stadium.
The Palestinian El Classico that took place on October 30, 2015, was different. It was during the wave of violence that swept the region that fall and winter. During the “Knives Intifada,” attacks by young Palestinians, mostly improvised, some lethal, were met with a fierce, mostly lethal response by Israeli security forces and nationalistic vigilances. Hebron was a hot spot for attacks, and between October 1 and the day of the al-Khalil-al-Thahriyeh derby, more than sixteen locals were killed—almost half of all Palestinians killed in that period. One of the victims, killed exactly two weeks before the game, was the twenty-year-old Basil Sidir, who was known for being Shabab al-Khalil’s number one fan –he appeared at all of the team’s practices and games, leading cheers with a huge drum.
Before the game, both teams released a joint statement, asking all the fans to wear black in solidarity and in mourning and respect for the dead, instead of their respective team’s songs. The fans responded with an altercation-free game. When the al-Khalil fans chanted “We will give our soul and blood for al-Aqsa,” al-Thahriyeh’s fans replied, “We will give our soul and blood for Palestine.” Shabab al-Khalil won the game2-1, an important win on the way to the title, but there were very few celebrations. Posters of Basil Sidir were raised by fans in the stands, and his drum was hung high in the air.
The power of soccer to unify, its power to project national pride and national identity –even when those nations are no longer on the map—is an old phenomenon. In the Soviet Union, the most important teams were the team of the people (Spartak), the team of the army (CSKA), and the team of the security services (Dynamo), and to this day fans keep their identities according to this division, many years after those security forces have been dismantled. The Barcelona soccer club in Spain is undoubtedly the leading symbol of Catalan identity and ambition for independence. Perhaps even more prominently, Bilbao Athletic has opted to represent the Basques, allowing only Basque players to play for the team. In Glasgow, Celtic FC is the Catholic team and Rangers FC the Protestant (and in their charged Old Firm derbies you can spot Israeli flags on the Ranger’s side, and Palestinian, as well as Basque, flags waved by Celtic fans, whose religion’s second-class status in England and role in the long battle over Northern Ireland aligns them with independence struggles). In 1990, fan violence in games between Red Star Belgrade and Dynamo Zagreb in the Yugoslavian league was one of the triggers for the civil war that broke out the following year, a war in which mobs of Red Star soccer fans led by a Serbian criminal known as Arkan burned into vicious militias which went on to carry out ethnic cleansing.
In another example of professional soccer pitting the occupied against the occupiers, Algiers in 1958, midway through the war of independence against the French occupation, formed a national team. The National Liberation Front (FLN) recruited supporters recruited supporters among the Algerian community in France, and in a secret operation in April of that year, nine players of Algerian descent who played in the French league (two of who were also on the French national team) left to join the newly created Algerian team. The defection of those Algerian –residents and citizens of France—to their homeland showed the commitment of the Algerians to independence. Despite FIFA’s refusal to recognize it, the new team played close to eighty international games. At the end of the Algerian War, it became the official national team. Its players were heroes not only to Algerians, but also to a world freeing itself from colonialism—Ho Chi Minh met with them in Vietnam, and Zhou Enlai met with them in China. They were invited to play around the world and became an enduring symbol of the power of sports to resist and highlight political injustice. To this day, this young French players with dual citizenship debate which national team to join, even though one of them, France, is among the strongest teams in the world. Still, the other team might be closer to their hearts.
The power of soccer to create a space that could allow the foundation of a new state has not escaped the attention of politicians, including those in Palestine. The Palestinians perhaps most inspired by the FLN’s success is Jibril Rajoub, who has harnessed the power of soccer to unite a population, even if not the full satisfaction of his people.
A seasoned politician, Rajoub is more revered for his savvy – and the success it has brought – than for his candor. It’s enough to read a selection of his quotes from recent years to understand why: he speaks in belligerent anti-Israeli rhetoric when inside Palestine, positioning himself as a man of the people; while in speeches and interviews in English – those that primarily reach Israeli and American audiences – he waxes conciliatory about his peaceful aspirations for the end to violence, positioning himself to outsiders as the kind of Palestinian leader who will help stabilize the region. His resume, a virtual history of modern Palestinian resistance, also speaks to his political savvy. Rajoub fought in his youth in the PLO against Israel, took part in armed attacks in the seventies, was sentenced to life in an Israeli jail and released fifteen years later in a prisoner swap, but not before he developed an impressive command of Hebrew and English. When the PLO became the political movement that created the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, he was there alongside Arafat and filled a number of roles in the newly formed security services. But given soccer’s role in legitimizing marginalized groups and fueling revolutionary impulses, it seems that Rajoub, the chairman of the Palestinian Football Association since 2006, is now in his most influential political position yet. In the decade in which he has worked in sports, possibly the toughest period to date for Palestinians under occupation, Palestinian soccer has achieved its greatest successes. And as always seems to be the case, the breakthroughs are more national than athletic in scope. Though there has been a Palestinian Olympic team since 1996, now the entity of Palestine has become a recognized member of FIFA with its own national team.
When Israel prevented players and coaches from several Arab states from entering the West Bank to take part in the West Asian youth championship, Jibril Rajoub did something brilliant and controversial: he demanded that FIFI suspend Israel’s membership in the organization. Later, after his plea went unanswered, he compiled a list of five demands confronting Israel’s breaches of FIFA’s founding principles: (1.) that Palestinian players and staff and their equipment be granted freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank (FIFA rules forbid the restriction of movement of soccer players because of their nationality); (2.) that football clubs based in the settlements be banned from the Israeli league (FIFA rules state that a football association cannot include teams that are based outside the state’s official territory); (3.) that the Israel Football Association fight racism in stadiums; (4.) that Israel issue construction permits for soccer stadiums and grounds in the Palestinian territories; (5.) that taxes and other restrictions on importing soccer equipment to the Palestinian Authority be lifted.
Rajoub did not stop with these statements. E gathered a team of Palestinian and Latin American lawyers to support his demands, and galvanized public opinion in the occupied territories and around the world. After Israel rejected the demands, Rajoub put forward a proposal to expel Israel from FIFA, and vote was set for May 29, 2015.
In the weeks and days proceeding the vote, the story became the center of attention in Israel and beyond: newspaper headlines, op-ed pieces, and current-affairs shows talked soccer and FIFA more than ever before. Israel and Palestine fought to sway FIFA delegates as if they were UN delegates in disguise. The international human rights organization Avaaz published an online petition in favor of Israel’s expulsion that collected sixty thousand signatures, half of them from the Palestinian territories and the other half from all over the world. On the day of the vote, thousands of Palestinians went out on the streets with soccer balls, balloon, and red cards that protestors “issued” to IDF soldiers. The scenes of nonviolent resistance were live-streamed around the world, and they inspired outpourings of support. Palestinian leaders had, is seemed, found a new tack, one that Israel could not resist by crying “security” and calling attention to Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians.
According to the Palestinians I have spoken to, the majority of FIFA delegates supported their case, but then a problem came from an unexpected direction. On the same day of the vote on the Palestinian proposition to suspend Israel, another vote was to take place at the FIFA convention: the election of the organization’s president. Prince Ali Bin Hussein, brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, was running for the position against Switzerland’s Sepp Blatter. Delegates from the European countries did not favor the Jordanian candidate, but he offered them a kind of compromise. In return for their support, bin Hussein would put pressure on the Palestinians to back off. It was a seductive offer. These delegates were eager to end what had become a major diplomatic scandal but didn’t want to be seen as suppressing Palestine’s initiative. They wanted bin Hussein to do their dirty work.
At first, Rajoub fought fiercely against the Jordanians, but thirty minutes before the vote, Rajoub withdrew his proposition. Many Palestinians who are familiar with Rajoub’s career in the Preventative forces, and his role as PFA head, believe his decision was tainted by corruption and international pressure. They believe, and have written, that he sold out the cause for his political career.
Disappointed Palestinian organizations started a new campaign: a red card for Jibril Rajoub. The people felt betrayed and angry. Rajoub, anxious about losing the people’s support, summoned anger of his own. After several days of posturing, both sides decided to take advantage of the momentum they had achieved and negotiated a reconciliation: in return for backing off, Rajoub was promised that a special FIFA committee would examine Israel’s compliance with FIFA rules and human rights. The Palestinian organizations promised to work together to help the committees.
Israel’s political might carried the day, but the values of soccer – opportunity for the underdog, consistent rules applied to all – also had their moment. The message that came across was that Palestinians want to play soccer but are not allowed to do so.
The FIFA committee finally made it to the Palestinian territories in May 2016. It was headed by Mosima Gabriel “Tokyo” Sexwale, himself a fascinating character. A black South African from Soweto, he was a member of the ANC who had fought against apartheid and sat in jail alongside Nelson Mandela, and after apartheid had risen in the ranks of the South African government. His ambitions to replace Mandela as president were ultimately thwarted, and he started a successful career as a businessman in the diamond mining industry. He acquired his nickname in childhood after becoming a karate champion.
Sexwale visited, among other places, the village of Beit Liqya in the Ramallah region, and was present with Rajoub at a special tournament organized for the FIFA delegation. The location was carefully picked by the Palestinians: Beit Liqya was home to a new soccer pitch built two years earlier and officially inaugurated by FIFA president Blatter but, owing to an Israeli prohibition, had never been used.
About two weeks after Sexwale’s visit, I traveled to Beit Liqya with Hilmy, a village resident who told me he used to work in construction in Tel Aviv, to see what had happened to the stadium. We left Jerusalem, traveling north to Ramallah, wound our way through an hour and a half of bypasses and rough roads, passed village after village, and maneuvered around restricted highway 443. When we arrived at Beit Liqya, Hilmy pointed to a hill and said that beyond it was Abu Gosh and Ma’ale Hachamisha. I know those hills well; that’s where I went to high school. Had we been able to travel directly, we would have arrived fifteen minutes after leaving Jerusalem.
Hilmy showed me the old soccer field on the southern side of the village, a dry earth pitch with two rusty goals. Here young people used to play daily, but since Israel started constructing the security barrier in 2004, it had become the site of clashes betwe3en the IDF and villagers protesting against the barrier cutting through their fields and orchards. The skirmishes reached their tragic peak on May 4, 2005. According to Hilmy, an IDF helicopter landed on an overlooking hilltop and unloaded soldiers. Children who were playing on the pitch that morning started throwing stones at the soldiers, who chased the kids and opened fire. Two boy s under the age of fourteen, Uday Assi and Jamal Assi, were shot and killed. They are buried next to the field.
Following this incident, the village decided to build a new soccer field, far from the violent fighting zone of the barrier, on the western side of the village. Money was raised. The mayor brought in an engineer and lawyer, and they started working on the paperwork. After surveying and measuring, they submitted a detailed construction plan to the Israeli Civil Administration in Beit El. Israel refused to approve the plans, offering no explanation. Outer Beit Liqya is in Area C, the part of the West Bank that remained under Israeli virtually never approves Palestinian construction in Area C. So even though the pitch has been laid out at the site for two years, there are no changing rooms and no stands and no games played there, because Israel won’t allow it. As hard as I try, I can’t find any explanation for how this structure could possibly harm Israel. On the contrary, it could help de-escalate the violence that has attached itself to - and eclipsed - the game of soccer.
Tokyo Sexwale heard the story of the field and met children from Beit Liqya who asked him to help them find a way to play soccer. According to Palestinian journalists, Sexwale said that preventing children from playing the game is a crime that international sports organizations must not ignore.
In 1996, I traveled to Ramallah for the Jerusalem magazine Kol Ha’ir, to write about the Palestinian national soccer team, which had been formed a few weeks earlier. My article begins with a quote from the local newspaper of Macclesfield, England, where the Palestinian national team played its first proper game, losing to an amateur English team from a regional league: “Without an organized league, training structure, and travel permits for eight key players from the Israeli authorities, this national team was not a real threat even to our second team. But the Palestinians made some friends and put a few smiles on faces, especially the performance of goalkeeper Galam Salem, who looked as if e had lost his invitation to the tea party, jumping to and from, not necessarily in the right direction.” Later in my article, an official of the Palestinian Authority’s sports Ministry explains, “The grass ruined our players in England. It was slippery and wet and cold, they slipped on it every time.” The official also detailed the difficulties suffered at the hands of the Israelis: refusal to let the Gazan players travel to a West Bank training camp, refusal to let some players leave the country, a twelve-hour delay at Tel Aviv airport (and the missed flight that resulted). “It would be no exaggeration to say,” I conclude, “that from Palestine, the neighbor’s grass looks much better.”
Twenty years on, it is easy to tell what has changed (there are organized Palestinian leagues and the national team is winning international matches and doesn’t slip around on the grass) and what hasn’t (the Israelis still delay Palestinians at the border and refuse to grant travel permits for players), but what stands out for me rereading my article is the light tome I immured it with. Yes, I relayed miserable airport and permit stories, but I did my best to capture the sense of hope I felt. Something new was beginning. Just three years had passed since the Oslo agreement; there was a Palestinian Authority; and it had established its own “civilian” ministries, including one for sports. The national team was brand new. The players and politicians I interviewed spoke about a future in which the team would play all over the world, would beat Israel. And I, the Israeli reporter, was perhaps somewhat patronizing, but also interested and encouraged. The hope surged through me, too. After thirty years, the occupation looked like it might be in its final days.
Now, fifty years into that occupation, the tone with which I once wrote about Palestinian soccer feels bizarre. This time in Ramallah, Beit Liqya, East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, no one joked with me, no one mentioned a future match against Israel. When you travel for a grueling hour and a half and arrive at a village which is located beyond the hill and see a soccer field that the people are forbidden to use, a field built to allow children to play in safety, far from the pitch where their friends were killed, the disappointment feels absolute, the complications insoluble.
The National team of Palestine fought for a ticket to the 2018 World Cup in the Asian qualifying group A. It finished in third place, trailing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and ahead of Malaysia and East Timor. The thrashing of the teams below it and draws with those above were not enough to qualify for the World Cup, though they did raise Palestine’s FIFA ranking thirty places, from 140th in the world to 110th [now 99th]. But, as always seems the case with Palestinian soccer, the competition was merely a sideshow. The most interesting story took place away from the pitch.
The Saudi Arabian national team was expected to arrive at their game in Palestine in the middle of 2015’s violent fall, in November of that year. The Saudis tried to switch the game to neutral ground in Jordan, their reasoning being that Saudi Arabia had no relations with Israel and therefore its team was not willing to pass border checkpoints manned by Israelis. The Saudi act was supposedly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. However, the Palestinians were eager to host a home game against a major team like Saudi Arabia in order to send a message to the soccer world that they were no longer the charming footnote they once had been, but were now a strong national team, one with a home in which it hosts its games. Jibril Rajoub opposed the Saudi decision vehemently and told FIFA that it could not force Palestine to play away from home. A couple of weeks before the game, FIFA made an announcement recognizing the Palestinians’ right to host games on their land, a right that could not be revoked. The Saudis increased their pressure, aiming it in all directions: at FIFA, at President Abbas, at the Jordanians, even at-Hamas, who announced at one stage that they supported the Saudis.
Why would an organization fighting for the freedom and independence of Palestine oppose the Palestinian national team’s hosting a soccer game in its home country? There were rumors that the Saudis had bribed Hamas. But as is the case with so much of this brand of soccer politics, definitive answers elude us. Rajoub continued to resist, and twenty-four hours before the game was supposed to take place in al-Ram, it looked as if the Saudis would suffer an automatic 3-0 loss for failing to appear. Rajoub said, “if, for the Saudis, supporting the Palestinian struggle is so important, and normalization with Israel is so dangerous, I’m sure they would be happy to sacrifice three points and have their Palestinian brethren get them.” But the Saudis kept pressing for a change of venue, and at the last minute, possibly following instructions from President Abbas’s office, the Palestinian security forces announced that they could not guarantee the safety of the Saudi players. It was now too much for Rajoub to fight against. The game moved to Jordan and ended in a 0-0 tie.
It was another diplomatic defeat for Rajoub after yet another heroic stand for the rights of Palestine. Another story in which the Palestinians showed that they should not allow themselves to be eternally portrayed as victims, but rather as a people trying to build success, pride, national identity, and a civil society. Soccer inspires all these possibilities. Yes, Palestinian soccer has suffered due to many crimes of the occupation, but it also has the power to create whatever is waiting beyond occupation. Here is a national team representing a state that does not exist, that has no airport or control over the movement of its players, that is never certain where it will play, which players will be allowed to attend and which won’t. But at the same time, it is a team participating in tournaments, achieving better and better results in them, positioning itself and its people as a national entity that exists on the world’s stage.
The Palestinian national team creates Palestinian identity and pride in another way: as an institution that unites Palestinian from all over the world. West Bank Palestinians with Gazan Palestinians, Palestinians living within Israel’s borders and carrying Israeli passports with second – and third-generation Palestinians who emigrated to different parts of the world. The unity is reflected in the backgrounds of the Palestinian soccer players: Ahmad Awad, who was born and grew up in Sweden, recently joined Palestine’s national team; Yashir Pinto is the latest recruit from Chile, a country that has created a pipeline of players of Palestinian descent to the league and the national team. (Famously, there is a team founded by Palestinian immigrants in the Chilean first league that features on its jersey a map of Palestine in place of the number 1.) In the current team there are also six players who carry Israeli passports, among them Muhammed Darwish from Fureidis (who previously played ten years in the Israeli league), Ahmad Abu Nayeh from Sakhanin, and Shadi Shaaban from Acre (who played for the Israel national youth team). There was also the late Azmi Nasser, a native of Nazareth who coached the town’s team in the Israeli league before becoming the coach of the Palestinian national team.
Palestinians take great pride in their league. Salman Amar, a coach born in Beit Safafa, in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, is just one example. Amar, who holds Israeli citizenship, played most of his career as an iconic right back for the Israeli team Hapoel Jerusalem and later coached it. Then, earlier this year, he transferred leagues without even moving out of Jerusalem—when he accepted an offer to coach the Palestinian team of Hilal al-Quds, he simply drove down to the Palestinian part of Jerusalem.
Hilal al-Quds, a club with a decorated history that includes winning the championship in 2012, was in the middle of a terrible season. Placed at the bottom of the table, far behind its rivals, it seemed destined for demotion. But under Amar’s guidance, the team turned the season around, emerging victorious in most of its remaining games, and avoiding relegation to the second division. Amor also led Hilal al-Quds to the Palestinian cup final. In a conversation in Beit Safafa, Amar spoke mainly about the incredible experience of working in the Palestinian league, characterizing it as going “back to my roots.” Even though he was delayed for hours every day in the Qalandiya checkpoint on his way to practices and games Faisal al-Husseini International Stadium in al-Ram (despite being a Jerusalem team, Hilal must play in the West Bank because some of its players are barred from entering Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem), his feeling was of a homecoming. Coaching in Arabic and traveling to players’ wedding in Jenin and Nablus reconnected him to life in the West Bank, and conversation with players speak about their girlfriends. Here you have players and staff from refugee camps. They speak of arrests of their brothers, of sleepless nights.”
Israel is trying to divide the Palestinians, geographically and historically. Gaza is divided from the West Bank. The Israeli Palestinians are divided from these in the occupied territories. Part of the Palestinian struggle is to blur those divisions. “Either we’re all Palestinians, or we aren’t,” says Amar. Like him, most Palestinians are welcome in Palestine and not seen as collaborators with the enemy. They are, after all, still Palestinians, they tell me. This is why players with Israeli passports are welcomed into Palestinian league and onto the national team. And this is why it is so meaningful that Salman Amar, an Israeli citizen, and former Hapoel Jerusalem player, led his team in a Palestinian cup final. It demonstrates how futile Israel’s policy of division is; how it only strengthens Palestinians’ bonds and inspires them to cross borders, like the French citizens opting to play for Algeria over half a century ago.
The road to the end of the occupation is long and winding. We’ve been on it for fifty years now, and I’m not convinced it won’t require another fifty. But the occupation will end. And until that day, I suggest that anyone who wants to know where things are going to follow Palestinian soccer. Using the power of the game, it is pulling the wagon, slowly, out the mud.
Assaf Gavron is an acclaimed Israeli writer who has published five novels: Ice, Moving, Almost Dead, Hydromania, and the Hilltop; a collection of short stories, Sex in the Cemetery; and a nonfiction collection of Jerusalem falafel-joint reviews, Eating Standing Up. His fiction has been adapted for the stage in Israel’s national theater and optioned for movies. He is the recipient of several awards, including the Bernstein Prize for The Hilltop, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, and the Prix Courrier International in France for Almost Dead. Gavron’s latest novel in English, The Hilltop, was published by Scribner in the United States in October 2014.