Sunday, February 16, 2020

Palestine and Pan Arab Games (1953 - 2011)

Issam Khalidi

     The Arab Games, also called the Pan Arab Games PAG, are a regional multisport event held between nations from the Arab world. They are organized by the Union of Arab National Olympic Committees. The first Games took place in 1953 in Alexandria, Egypt. Intended to be held every four years since, political turmoil as well as financial difficulties have made the event an unstable one. [1]
    Just five years after the Nakba (the catastrophe, refers to the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian that took place with the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948), still not recovering from its consequences Palestinians decided to take part in the first Pan Arab Games in Alexandria in 1953. This was the first competition Palestinians took part after 1948. It was a good opportunity to demonstrate their national identity at the time when they have been denied the right to exist. 
    Was the Palestinian team qualified after five years of the Nakba to participate in these games (the first in 1953 and the third in 1961)? Was it capable to compete with its counterparts from Arab countries where conditions were more stable and sport was relatively better? 
  First, Palestinian sports before the Nakba reached a reasonable level of growth especially after the re-establishment of the (Arab) Palestine Sports Federation in September 1944. Also, the periods 1930s and 1940s generated quite a good number of boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters who competed with their counterparts in Arab countries, especially Egypt which compared to other Arab countries had a prominent athletic prestige. Boxers such as Sanharib Saliba and Adeeb Al-Dasouqi could reach international level. During the 1948 War Palestinian sports administrators, coaches and athletes were dispersed. Many evacuated to Gaza Sector and settled there, where they made  sufficient contribution to the growth of sports. Administrators such as Subhi Farah, Zaki Khayyal, Elias Manneh and others managed tirelessly to prepare these qualified athletes to take part in PAG.

     Second, being under the Egyptian administration since early 1950s, Gaza Sector witnessed a rapid growth in sports. The Egyptian administration established the “Regional Committee for Youth Care,” which was headed by the General Governor, and included 25 members, most of whom were sports leaders. The Supreme Committee of Youth in Cairo supported this regional committee financially and technically. Several other committees emerged from the regional committee such as national education and sports committees. [2]
   The national leadership in Egypt has been keen to maintain the Palestinian national identity. It honestly and consistently sought to keep the name of Gaza Strip as “Palestine” in all Arab and international forums and events. The name of Palestine has been officially installed at the remaining part of Palestine.[4]  Preserving Palestinian national identity by Egypt had a major impact on promoting Palestinian sports in Gaza Sector and on inciting the desire to participate in these games under the name Palestine.

  At these games in 1953 in Alexandria Palestine won 5 silver medals and 6 bronze. Nine countries competing in ten sports took part in these games. Palestine tied with Iraq in the number of medals. It came in the fourth place after Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. In football, Palestine lost with Egypt 2:8, and with Libya 5:1. However, Palestinians excelled in boxing. Akram Arafat and Muhammed Al-Rayyis won the silver medal while Khalil Al-Afifi won the bronze. [3]
    In the second PAG in Beirut Lebanon in 1957 Palestine did not take part. In the third in 1961 in Casablanca, Morocco Palestine won 1 gold medal and 7 bronze. The boxer Omar Hammo was the first Palestinian to win the gold medal. Muhammed Saeed Abu Shahla won a bronze in weightlifting. 
   In the fourth PAG in Cairo, Egypt in 1965 Palestine won three medals one silver and two bronze. One of the reasons in the decline in winning more medals was due to the participation of new countries such as Algeria and Sudan, and the remarkable progress that Morocco and Iraq achieved at the sport level. At these games Palestine defeated Lebanon 1:0, and Oman 1:0. 

    The center of gravity of the Palestinian sports movement had been moving from one place to another due to the dispersion and the conditions the Palestinian people and their leadership were going through. After the Ailul (September) War of 1970 between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Jordanian Armed Forces, the headquarters of the Supreme Council for Youth Care (established in Jordan in 1969, in 1974 it was renamed Supreme Council for Youth and Sports SCYS) was moved from Jordan to Lebanon.  It remained there until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the destruction of the Palestinian sports infrastructure there.   
   Palestine took part in the fifth PAG in 1976 in Damascus, Syria. However, it did not get any medal. Of course, the civil war in Lebanon had a major impact on decline on the growth of sports movement. This also proves that Palestinian sports was more advanced in Gaza Sector than in other places of the Diaspora. 
    In 1985, in Rabat, Morocco Palestine took part and won 1 silver medal and 3 bronze. For the first time in these games a boxer from the West Bank, Khalil Zaheda takes part and wins a bronze medal. In 1992 in Damascus, Palestinians won 9 medals: 1 gold, 2 silver and 6 bronze. In 1997 in Beirut they won only 4 bronze medals. In Amman in 1999 Palestinian team won one silver medal and nine bronze. One of these bronze medals was in football. In Algeria in 2004 they won one silver medal and one bronze. In Cairo, Egypt in 2007 Palestine won only three bronze medals. 
   As for the twelfth PAG in Doha, Qatar in 2011, Palestine participated with the largest delegation consisting of 161 athletes and administrators in 16 games. The delegation was headed by Daoud al-Mitwalli. The body builder Peter Bizanti won the only gold medal, while other athletes and teams won 2 silver and 5 bronze medals.
  In the games of 1953, 1961 and 1965 the majority of the Palestinian athletic team was from Gaza Sector. While the games of 1976, 1985 and 1992 athletes were from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. However, after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority most of the team was from Gaza and West Bank.

    Despite the small number of medals Palestine got in these games (1953 – 2011), its participation had a moral significance reflected in highlighting the name of Palestine and demonstrating the Palestinian national identity in the region and sustaining the bonds of national brotherhood and friendship between Palestinian and Arab youthIn addition, it reflected Arab solidarity with the issue of Palestine. At the same time, this participation was a catalyst for Palestinian sports, and a tool for assessing athletes' performance. 
    It is difficult to determine which of these participations was the best, and whether obtaining this number of medals (1953 – 2011: 5 gold, 29 silver and 60 bronze) is an indicator of sports growth or not. It should be borne in mind that Palestine’s participation in these games came in different political conditions that had their characteristics and impacts on sports development. It is known that Palestinian sports have been and still suffering from dispersion. Since 1948,  center of gravity of Palestinian sports movement had moved from Jaffa to Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Tunis, Gaza and ended in Ramallah. Also, we must take in consideration that the number of Arab countries taking part in these games has been increased which affected the sharing of the medals. However, at the end what matters is Palestine's participation not the medals number.


 [4] Ghazi Al-Sourani, Sector Gaza 1948 – 1993, A Historical Social Study. 15 November 2011. Rita’ Ghaza 1948 – 1993, Dirasa Tarikhiyya Ijtima’yya.


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