Thursday, September 30, 2021

Palestine in the International Sports Arena: 1930s – 1994


Issam Khalidi


   Throughout decades Palestinian struggle has always been multilateral and sport was one of them.  Sport was a mirror that reflected Palestinian reality, and portrayed this reality in every detail. Sports developments have often been parallel to and overlapping with political developments, and were not isolated from harsh conditions that were afflicting Palestinian people before and after the Nakba disaster of 1948. In addition, Palestinian sports movement went hand in hand with the national-liberation movement - represented by PLO - in struggle to represent Palestinian national identity and engage Palestine in the international community.  


   The first appearance of Palestine on an international level was in the 1930s. It played against Egypt in 1934 and Greece in 1938 in world cup qualifiers. Although this team included only Jewish players,  it eventually represented Palestine the country, and the people.[1]  Palestine also took part in the International Chess Olympics in 1936 and 1939.[2]


  Palestine’s affiliation with Arab sports federations after 1948, and its participation in Arab tournaments and championships paved the way for the entry into the international sports arena. Thanks to the Arab support, which was more generous then than now and played a major role in highlighting the image of Palestine at Arab level. Palestine’s engagement in the international sports arena went in two directions: first, its affiliation with international sports federations, which enabled and accelerated Palestine’s participation at the international level; secondly, participation in international sporting events, tournaments and championships.

   After 1948, the Palestine Sports Federation which was founded in Palestine in 1931 and was re-established in 1944 kept existing, documents found in FIFA’s archive show that it decided to continue seeking affiliation with FIFA in 1951 (Abdel Rahman al- Habbab then was PSF secretary).[3]


    No further information about this application was mentioned. Apparently, FIFA had rejected the application on the pretext that the West Bank was not an independent entity and under the rule of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.[4]


  In Gaza Sector the Palestine Sports Federation was founded in 1962. One of its goals was to join FIFA, despite its expectations that the latter will pose obstacles in front of this request, especially since the applications similarly were rejected twice in 1946 and 1951. The application had been rejected under the pretext that Gaza Sector was a territory under control [of Egypt] and not an independent nation.[5] Nevertheless, at that time three sports associations - table tennis, basketball, and track and field - had been affiliated with their respective international associations.


    The first participation of Palestine on international level was in 1966 in Phnom Penh in North Korea in the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) where the games set up by Indonesia as a counter to the Olympic Games. Established for the athletes of the so-called “emerging nations” (mainly newly independent socialist states). A second GANEFO scheduled for Cairo in 1967 was cancelled.[6] The football team matched with Yemen, North Korea, China and North Vietnam. The team was made up mainly from players from Gaza Sector, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The delegation was headed by veteran sport activists Zaki Khayyal, Zuhair Dabbagh, and Elias Manneh. [7] Nevertheless, at that time three associations - table tennis, basketball, and track and field - were admitted to their respective international associations. 


    The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in 1964 and has been the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement. It is a broad national front, or an umbrella organization, comprised of numerous organizations of the resistance movement, political parties, popular organizations, and independent personalities and figures from all sectors of life. The Arab Summit in 1974 recognized the PLO as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and since then the PLO has represented Palestine at the United Nations, the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries (NAM), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and in many other fora. In addition to its broad national and political goals, the PLO has dealt with numerous tasks with regard to the life of the Palestinian people in their main communities and throughout the world through the establishment of several institutions in such realms as health, education and social services. As such, the PLO is more than a national liberation movement striving to achieve the national goals of the Palestinian people, including the independence of the State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.[8] As the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the PLO is regarded as the entity responsible for acting on behalf of Palestinians everywhere.[9] Since late 1960s until 1994 Palestinian sports movement in the Diaspora was administratively subject to the PLO. While in the West Bank and Gaza Sector, in the 1970s and 80s social-athletic clubs and civil society organizations were part of the national movement whose line was parallel to the PLO

  The Organization has established departments that are responsible for several important spheres of work, each headed by a member of the Executive Committee. The departments include, among others, the Political Department, the Department of Returnees, the Department of Culture and Information, and the Department of Popular Organizations. [10] In 1969 the PLO issued a decree to establish the Supreme Council for Youth Welfare (the name was changed in 1974 to the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports SCYS). Later, committees for youth welfare have been formed in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Kuwait. The headquarters of the council was in Amman then moved to Lebanon. In the 1970s there was an acceleration in Palestine’s engagement at the international level. This was in line with the strategy set by the PLO to demonstrate the Palestinian issue to the world.


   Palestine’s participation on international level was not limited to football, it also included other sports such as table tennis and chess. Palestinian players took part in table tennis in the Afro-Asian Friendship Tournament in China in 1971, in the first Asian Championship in China in 1972, in the second in Yokohama-Japan in 1974, and in the third in Phnom Penh-North Korea in 1976. Palestine took part in the World Championship in 1979 in North Korea, and in 1981 in Yugoslavia. Most of the players at that time were from SCYS’s branch committees of Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, and Iraq. [11] Khaled Ejjawi points out that the results of table tennis were all modest for several reason, most notably the lack of a specialized coach to improve the level of players in the game, and secondly, the dispersion of these players and the inability to assemble the team before a short period of time from any participation, and the inability to hold a training camp for them. [12]


   In chess, Palestinian players participated in the Thessaloniki Olympics in Greece in 1984, and in Dubai Olympics in 1986. Palestine took part in the World Championship for U-20 Youth in the Philippines in 1987 where the player Ala' Mousa got the best Arab result in the tournament. Palestine also took part in the Asian Cities Championship in Dubai in 1990, and in the Philippine Olympics in 1992, Ala’ Mousa won third place, and was awarded the title of international master.[13]

     The bodybuilder Zarif Shabana could achieve results at an international level, he took part in many international tournament and competitions such as “Mr. Universe”, “Mr. Ward”, and “Mr. International”. Other bodybuilders such Asad Qiblawa, Samir Owed, Jihad Adlouni, and Abdel Naser Adlouni took part in international competitions. [14] At that time Palestinian referees emerged on an international level, such as Fawzi Al-Khudari, Jihad Al-Khadra, and Asad Qiblawi. [15]


   As for football, the beginning of the emergence of Palestine on an international level was through the parties that showed sympathy with the Palestinian cause, such as international labor organizations and socialist countries. A sports protocol between the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and the French Labor Federation FLF was signed in 1982. FLF invited the Palestinian Flagship team compete with French teams in various French cities.[16] Palestine also participated in the International Friendship Tournament that was held in the former Soviet Union in 1986 and 1987.


   In 1975, sports activists in the West Bank established Rabitat al-Andiya the League of Clubs which included the majority of the clubs there. In 1980, another Rabita was established in Sector Gaza. Since 1967 until 1994, due to the closure imposed by the Israeli occupation, the West Bank and Sector Gaza were unable to take part in Arab and international competitions. In April 1984, Shabab Al-Khalil Hebron Youth Club’s team traveled to France via Jordan and met with St. Etienne, Annecy and Drancy. In September 1986, a protocol of cooperation was signed by Al-Rabita and a French delegation in charge by the French Workers Federation. [17] . Twinning agreements were signed between Palestinian clubs in the West Bank and French clubs. Preliminary consultations also took place between  Al-Rabita and the Italian Federation, and a cooperation agreement was signed in 1989.


   As it was mentioned, the PFA had three attempts to join FIFA, but its applications were rejected.  In 1978, and 1979, PFA submitted two applications to FIFA respectively,  but these efforts were in vain.  In order to achieve this goal PFA continued its coordination with the Arab Football Association AFA  (Palestine joined AFA in 1974) which offered enormous support. In 1989, PFA was able to get a 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 under the pretext that Palestine does not have a regional status. In 1993, depending on the new political conditions (ratification of the Oslo Agreement), and on the admission of the Palestine Olympic Committee in IOC as observer, PFA applied again.  Unfortunately, its application was rejected.

   In May 1995, the PFA was granted the status of provisional member in FIFA.  Considering the prevailing situation regarding Palestine, the Executive Committee nevertheless made the following two restrictions:[18] First, the Palestinian Football Federation may only play friendly matches. Second, the Palestinian Football Federation may only play these matches in the territory of another national association affiliated to FIFA (provided that the national association concerned gives their authorization). In June 1998, PFA was affiliated to FIFA as a full member at its 51st Ordinary Congress, held in Paris on June 8th 1998.[19]  As it has been mentioned, Palestine had been waging a long struggle to get their association admitted to FIFA since 1946.  Six attempts went in vain; however, joining FIFA in 1998 was the result of long efforts that were fruitful at the end.

   In fact, FIFA is the first international sports organization to admit Palestine as a member of its association.  Having the ability to be recognized by FIFA, by itself, was a great victory not only to Palestinian sports in particular, but also to Palestine in general. In fact, this membership helped to improve PFA performance in many aspects; it accelerated the growth and progress of football in Palestine and gave the Palestinian national team a chance to participate in the international arena.


   In 1975 the Palestinian Olympic Committee POC was formed. It was accepted into the Arab Federation for Sports Games in 1978. It applied to join the International Olympic Committee in 1979, but its application was rejected, so it resubmitted the application in 1980 during the Olympic Games in Moscow, however the Asian Olympic Committee suggested to postpone the application. There was another attempt during the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, but it ended with the rejection of the application.


     In 1986, POC was admitted in the Olympic Council of Asia during the Asian Games in Seoul. In 1989, the Committee began to move through Sports Federation of French Workers and the Italian Federation of Popular Sports in order to establish campaign for Palestine’s admission to the International Olympic Committee. The head of the Italian Federation of Popular Sports announced that a number of Italian sports celebrities had signed a petition calling on the IOC to give Palestine its legitimate seat, especially after the declaration of the Independent Palestinian State. Unfortunately, these efforts did not succeed in getting the international Committee to recognize the Palestinian Olympic Committee. In 1990, the POC received an official invitation to participate in the Asian Games in China in 1990. In 1993 Palestine received provisional recognition from the IOC. It was officially admitted in 1995. This recognition marked the beginning for Palestine to enter the international field, which contributed to its participation in the Atlanta Olympics in the United States in 1996.



[1] As a reaction to the Zionist domination on the sports arena and the marginalization of the Arabs form the Palestine Football Association PFA (established in 1928 and joined FIFA in 1929) by the Zionists, the Arabs established Palestine Sports Federation PSF in 1931, it stopped functioning at the end of 1930s. In September 1944 it was re-established and continued functioning until late 1947. Its re-establishment was a turning pointing in Palestinian sports. In 1946 it applied to join FIFA, however, its application was rejected under the pretext that Palestine could not be presented by two sports organizations. 

[3] FIFA Archive.

[4] Issam Khalidi, One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine (Amman: Dar al-Shorook 2013) p. 104.

[5] Ibid,

[7] Issam Khalidi, One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine,



[11] Khaledd Ejjawi, Al-Haraka al-Riyadiayya al-Falastiniyya fi al-Shatat, [Palestine Sports Movement in Diaspora] (Damascus: al-Dar al-Wataniyya al-Jadida, 2002), p. 513 – 514.

[12] Ibid, p. 515

[13] Ibid, p. 522 – 523

[14] Ibid, p. 523

[15] Ibid, p. 524

[16] Ibid, p. 508

[17] Rasim Yunis, al-Haraka al-Riyadiyya fi al-Diffa al-Gharbiyya 1967 - 1987 (Palestine Sports Movement in the West Bank), (Hijjawi Press: Nablus, 1992). p. 486.

[18] FIFA Archive, a letter from FIFA to Palestine Football Federation on 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.

[19] Minutes of the 51st Ordinary Congress, held at the Equinox Hall, Paris, France. 7 June 1998 at 16.00 hours.8 June 1998 at 09.30 hours. The Deputy General Secretary said that it had been decided at meeting no. 11 of the Executive Committee in Zurich on 27 May 1998 to propose to the Congress that full FIFA membership be granted to the following national associations, in compliance with the statutory provisions regarding the admission of national associations applying for membership (articles 3 to 5 of the Statutes and 1 to 3 of the Regulations governing the Application of the Statutes).

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