Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Ideological Aspects of Palestinian Sports

           Issam Khalidi

   It is not unusual to see Palestinian culture (literature, art, and sports) infused with national characteristics. There is a reason for this: the pain, the dispossession, and the displacement of the Palestinian people. As a form of social consciousness, Palestinian culture was not isolated from political conditions.  Since this culture has been involved in catastrophes (Nakbat) for over a century, it is often perceived as politicized and ideological.


   Sport is a form of soft power. It has little effect on politics. As far as global, regional, and national issues are concerned, the role of sport cannot replace the role of governmental and international institutions. However, as South African leader and activist Nelson Mandela said after his country won the World Rugby Championship in 1995, “sport can move people’s emotions in a way that nothing else can.” According to sports sociologists, its glorious history, its material values, and its achievements don't quite match sports' ability to elicit national feelings and strengthen national bonds.


   The Oxford dictionary defines ideology as a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.  Each culture has its own ideology, which can take various religious or secular forms. Most of them are based on untestable assumptions and values that are intrinsic to each culture. Although ideologies are based on untestable assumptions, they have very clear effects on our awareness, behavior, emotions, and social existence.


  Palestinian ideology over the decades has been based on national liberation, self-determination, and building an independent state.   As part of the Palestinian national ideology, sport is used to maintain and demonstrate national identity and to confront denials of Palestine's existence. Aside from that, it exposes occupation practices that take place every day. 


   The Palestinian case is entirely different from totalitarian regimes using sport for propaganda (as opposed to the West which exploits for profit and commercialization). Sport is subordinate to political conditions and involves the hardships Palestinians face every day. There is an important connection between sport and the Palestinian national struggle. 


   During the First Zionist Congress in Basel that took place in 1897, the notion of a "new Jew" was put forth that would differ from the "Diaspora Jew" in terms of form and morals. In addition, the Zionist leader Max Nordau proposed the idea of Jewish muscle at this conference, which was an expression of the idea of creating a generation which would be similar in physical characteristics to that generation during the time of the ancient Jewish state. By resurrecting Judaism's ideals and educating the younger generation in a physical way, Zionism aimed to raise Judaism to a new level. As a result, the "lost Zionist muscle" would be able to be reestablished.


   Since the 1920s, the Palestinian National Movement was unaware that sport would serve as a means of educating Palestinians; it would refine their bodies, fill them with a sense of brotherhood, and make them feel proud and love for their homeland, as well as make them realize that sports are an integral part of highlighting the national identity of the Palestinian people. The national movement didn't put sports on its national agenda. It was also because sport was not growing at a high rate in the 1920s and 1930s. In other words, the national tendency in Palestinian sports emerged in late 1920s as a reaction to Zionist hegemony in the sports arena. It wasn't because sports were part of the Palestinian national movement's agenda.


  As part of this national agenda, sports were only feasible when Palestinians felt Zionist dominance over sports. It was only a few months after the Maccabiad festival of 1935 in Tel Aviv (an Olympic-style festival held in Tel Aviv in 1932 and 1935), when the Palestinian sports and Scout movements, as well as the Youth Congress, organized a Scout-sports festival, which the Zionists figured out a thousand accounts for.


   As a result of the intense conflict between Arabs and Zionists in sports, when the Palestinians realized how Zionist hegemony was affecting their sports movement (that has been suspended due to the 1936-39 Revolt), they pooled their forces and re-formed the Palestinian Sports Federation PSF in 1944 (which had been formed in 1931). It operated until 1947. It ultimately became a rival to the Palestine Football Association (founded in 1928), which was dominated by Zionists and represented Palestine in FIFA. To represent Palestine, the PSF applied to the International Football Federation FIFA. As a result, its bid was rejected because, according to the International Federation, Palestine cannot be represented by two federations at the same time.


   However, this attempt to join the International Federation constituted an ideological conflict over the right of Palestinians, who made up the majority of the population, to represent Palestine. At the FIFA conference in 1946, many debates and arguments took place in this regard. That was ultimately in the Palestinian national movement's best interest. 


  As an added point, the Islamic Sports Club was also responsible for the birth of the paramilitary Al-Najada organization back in the 1940s. It is evident from this that Arab clubs in Palestine during that period were highly influenced by nationalistic intellectual tendencies. It is also to be noted that the presence of many Scout teams within social sports clubs in Palestine has had a positive impact on strengthening the patriotic spirit of Palestinian youths. It was great to see the scouts play national anthems and raise Palestinian flags, which helped spread patriotic spirit.


   Many social sports clubs and service centers have been set up in Palestinian refugee camps in the diaspora after the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948). Some of them were affiliated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugee Employment UNRWA, because of the Nakba. Clubs such as these played a very important role not only on a social level, but also on a national level. As a result, there was an intellectual and political reverberation associated with their sport activities, as they grew and developed.


   Participating in the Arab Games and the Friendship Tournament GANEFO in Phnom Penh Cambodia in 1966 was unquestionably a demonstration of Palestinian national identity and proof of the Palestinian people's existence. As a result of the Nakba, when the Palestinian sports movement's center became the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Sports Federation PSF was established in 1962. At the time, Palestine's application to become a member of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) at that time was a way for the Palestinian people to draw the attention of the world to their presence and to the Palestinian issue. As a result of the correspondence between the PSF and FIFA, the former has provided a comprehensive explanation of the nature of the dispersion conditions Palestinians were experiencing. The PSF, however, was not able to join FIFA since the International Federation considered the Gaza Strip to be a "territory" under Egyptian control.


   Due to the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1960s, the Supreme Council for Youth Welfare was established in 1969 (in 1974, the name of the Council was changed to the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports). As an aside, it needs to be said that, from the very beginning, the goal of the establishment of this council was not only to improve the physical and mental health of the younger generations and to refine their character in a sense of belonging, but also to use sport as a means of promoting the Palestinian issue.

   Since 1967, sports activity has been intertwined with nationalism. This is largely due to the nature of the circumstances that the Palestinian people had to endure during that period of time. Sports activities took place in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were in parallel with the national movement, and they were often coordinated with it as well. Many of the clubs were under the control of Palestinian factions under the Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella. A clear Palestinian ideology in sports emerged after Palestine joined the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in 1998. As a result of this membership, Palestine became the center of attention in the world of sports.  Palestinians have been able to express their identity and hardships under Israeli occupation on a global scale despite the double standard FIFA applies to the Palestinian issue. It is still a fact that despite the reservations we have about the Oslo Accords, and the devastating consequences they have for our people, that there is still a sense of nationalistic sentiment, as far as sports are concerned, in Palestine. 

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