The leaders of the Palestinian Football Federation this week postponed for 48 hours the second leg of the final of the Palestine Cup scheduled Saturday at Hebron stadium. Feverish negotiations ensued to allow all players of the Khan Yunis Shebab, a Gaza club, to go to Hebron after Israeli authorities denied entry to nine of the 19 members of Khan Yunis for alleged “safety reasons.”
On Tuesday, the games were allowed to go ahead, in Hebron, as Ahly al-Khalil defended its title with a 1-1 draw, capping a 2-1 aggregate victory after a 1-0 win in the first leg. This is important because the team who wins the title goes on to participate in the Asian Games and other regional competitions.
And Israel’s interference, therefore, was also important. After the beginning of the Intifada in Jerusalem last October, it has introduced new restrictions on the transit of younger Palestinians, including soccer players, going back on its word on the guarantees that had offered to the Palestinian Football Association.
On Wednesday, the boys of Khan Younis Shabab were traveling together with the leaders of their club to the Erez crossing, between Gaza and Israel. Inside they had a strong desire for the re-match. The team Ahly Hebron — that performed in a couple of years a real sports miracle, thanks to the technical intervention of an Italian coach, Stefano Cusin — a few hours before had humiliated them, beating them right on their home turf of Gaza and mortgaging in part the victory of the Palestine Cup.
Once they reached the Israeli blockade, they were told they had to wait for the conclusion of the security controls. After a 12-hour hold, they were informed that nine members of the Shebab team would not obtain authorization to enter Israeli territory and reach the West Bank.
The president of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub, reacted immediately. “This behavior by Israel is unacceptable,” he protested. “The players were forced to wait all those hours (at the Erez terminal) and were subject to interrogations and controls that have nothing to do with security. The Israelis have been asking questions (to the players) about their neighbors and about other situations in Gaza that have no connection with security. I do not know if there is another place in the world where football teams are treated this way.”
The Israeli intelligence services, on their part, have made it clear that issuing transit permits to some of the soccer players of Khan Yunis Shebab would represent a risk to the security of the country, but they did not offer any other explanations. It is very likely that the excluded players have been sent home just because Israeli intelligence have classified them as sympathizers of Hamas or other Palestinian parties considered radical or “terrorists.”
Though the incident is resolved, the story confirms to the eyes of the Palestinians how critical was the decision taken a year ago by Jibril Rajoub to waive his vote at FIFA on the suspension of Israel and accept a compromise. Before that agreement, Rajoub had set up what many called “the Intifada of the ball,” the “mother” of all battles for the rights of soccer players and Palestinian athletes affected by the military occupation.
The offensive was supported for a few days by hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of FIFA who showed “red cards” to request the suspension of Israel. Then, it was said that international pressure led Rajoub to accept a deal with Israel that included the creation of a joint committee on the transit of Palestinian players and their teams, including the national team, and the issue of the five teams of Jewish settlers, then based in Palestinian occupied territories, that participate in Israeli championships.
Rajoub held up the result as a success. “I decided to withdraw the suspension (of Israel), but this does not mean that I gave in on the resistance,” he said, denying international pressure on his move. “If things do not change,” he warned, “the Palestinians will submit their request again.”
The celebrations in Israel, however, gave the exact meaning of that compromise. Local media reported that the Netanyahu government, in the days before the FIFA meeting, had conducted an intensive diplomatic effort to convince other federations to oppose the Palestinian proposal. The Intifada of the ball so turned in the Intifada of the deflated ball.
The return home was very bitter for Jibril Rajoub. In Jericho, during a press conference, he tried to explain the compromise reached with Israel but was challenged for days by Palestinian sportsmen and a bit by all the political parties that would have preferred a defeat in the FIFA vote rather that a waiver they considered humiliating. A year later, nothing has changed for Palestinian football. It was and remains a prisoner of the occupation.