A Palestinian soccer team from the West Bank has traveled through Israel to play a match in Gaza for the first time in 15 years.
Players from Ahli Al-Khalil, the winners of West Bank league, entered the marooned 223 square-mile Gaza Strip late on Tuesday ahead of a match against their Gaza counterparts, Shujaiyeh, scheduled for Thursday.
Though Israel withdrew from Gaza nearly ten years ago, its territory separates the West Bank from the strip, which has been isolated by an Israeli blockade ever since Hamas — deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel — came to power in 2007. The blockade includes strict controls on the movement of people coming in and out.
The Hebron-based Ahli Al-Khalil team was expected to arrive on Monday, but it was reportedly delayed because Israeli officials hesitated to issue travel permits for the players. A Gaza sports official told Reuters that permission was eventually granted at the eleventh-hour under international pressure following a complaint that the Palestinian Football Association lodged with FIFA.
The Palestinian national team includes players from both territories, but team members from Gaza say that they are frequently denied permits to meet with their counterparts in the West Bank for training or to participate in tournaments held in foreign countries. In 2010 the team was forced to forfeit a World Cup qualifier game against Singapore after it was unable to field a full team for the match.
Other Palestinian players have been effectively removed from the sport after being detained by Israeli security services. In one high-profile case, national team member Mahmoud Sarsak was held under an administrative detention order — a draconian measure that allows suspects to be held indefinitely without trial — for three years after being accused of involvement in a bomb plot. Sarsak was eventually released after a hunger strike and an international solidarity campaign by soccer fans.
Earlier this year the Palestinian Authority accused Israel of "racism" and "apartheid" in the sport, and attempted to red-card the country by threatening to call for a vote to suspend it from the FIFA.
The proposed ballot was eventually dropped amid the breaking corruption scandal surrounding Sepp Blatter and other high-ranking FIFA officials and fears that the Palestinians would not get the necessary support from inside the organization; three quarters of member states must vote in favor for a motion to be passed. The issue nevertheless attracted a lot of attention, highlighting the restrictions that Gazans regularly face.
Following Thursday's match, the two teams are scheduled to play a second leg in Hebron on Sunday. The squad that comes out on top will take home the Palestine Cup and qualify to play in the Asian Football Confederation tournament.
"I am full of honor and pride," Al-Ahly forward Khaldon al-Halman told Reuters. "This is the first time I have ever visited Gaza and I can't find the words to describe my feelings."
James Montague, the author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, which explores the relationship of soccer top politics across the Middle East, told VICE News that Israel's decision to let the West Bank players enter Gaza was "huge and significant" for the development of the sport in the territories.
"It shows the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, many of whom have staked a lot of political capital on sport in general and football in particular as an agent of change — that changes can be won, whether it is in soccer, the International Criminal Court, or beyond," he said.
Israel has denied that its policies toward Palestinian soccer players is racist, and has accused Palestinian officials of politicizing the sport.
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