Soccer Is Under Fire in Palestine

The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) has complained that Israel consistently undermines Palestinian soccer development—partly by blowing up their soccer fields—and wants them kicked out of FIFA.

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Jun 24 2014, 6:00am

Al Quds University’s sports field, overlooked by a wall separating Israeli and Palestinian territories

Last week, soccer's ruling elite took time out of their busy schedule of corruption to reject Palestinian calls to ban or suspend the Israeli Football Association from FIFA—for now. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) had complained that Israel consistently undermines Palestinian soccer development. They want their neighbors kicked out of the federation, but instead a new committee is going to be set up, giving Israel until the end of the year to make it easier for Palestinians to play the beautiful game.

The general secretary of the Palestinian Players’ Federation, Mona Dabdoob, was one of those who presented FIFA chiefs with a dossier of restrictions and attacks from Israel on Palestinian sport as they met in Brazil. A few weeks earlier, I had visited her at the PFA HQ, recently built by FIFA in Al Ram, a dusty satellite town of Jerusalem, cut off and almost surrounded by the wall separating it from Israel. She flicked through the dossier and showed me photos of what little is left of the national soccer stadium that was bombarded in Gaza in 2012. It had already been rebuilt once after having been destroyed in 2006. The Olympic headquarters were also destroyed.

As if having stadiums and infrastructure routinely blown up wasn't bad enough, Palestinian soccer players also have to put up with being checked when traveling, and are often blocked from passing through the territories. “To play a team half an hour’s drive away for a league match within the West Bank, teams are stopped at one or two checkpoints. And they can keep them there for hours. Or just turn them back,” Mona told me.

The road on which Jawhar and Adam were attacked

Occasionally things can be much worse. On January 31, two Abu Dis FC players, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, had walked a teammate home after training when Israeli snipers shot them both repeatedly and set a dog on them. I skyped them from their hospital beds in Jordan, where Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, FIFA Vice President, was paying for their extensive treatment. The pair showed me their injuries. “There was no alarm, no identification or warning,” said Jawhhar.

Adam was shot first in the leg. As Jawhar tried to drag him to safety, he was shot repeatedly in the hand and leg—11 times total. Adam was shot once in the knee and two times in the other leg. The soldiers were hidden in the trees by the side of the road. As the boys lay screaming, a dog was set on them.

Jawhar showed me the bite marks on his right wrist—the hand that hadn’t been shot. “I asked them to remove the dog, but they said they were not allowed to. When it was biting down to the bone in my hand, I poked the dog in the eye with my other hand and only then it let go.

"They covered our eyes and tied our hands," he continued. "They pulled us along the ground without a stretcher for 100 yards to the base by our shoulders. It felt very, very, painful. We were shouting from pain.”

As the screams echoed around the village and news of the attack spread, Jawhar’s family arrived, but they were told they would be shot if they came any closer.

Adam and Jawhar were then taken to an Israeli border police station. “In the camp, they tore my football shirt off, and put fingers in my gunshot wounds,” said Jawhar. “They were saying, ‘Jawhar, are you throwing stones at us? Are you making Molotov cocktails or a bomb?’ My eyes were covered, and they hit me in the mouth and over the head.”

“They hit my head with a gun and they broke the leg with a gunshot in,” Adam said. “My head had seven stitches from being hit by a gun. They forced my leg backwards until it snapped. I don’t know who did this; the soldiers covered their faces. They were joking and laughing.”

After three hours the ordeal came to an end and a Jeep took them to the hospital. They insisted they had no idea why they were attacked. The Israeli police maintain that Jawhar and Adam were moments away from attacking the nearby police base with an explosive device, but they haven’t been convicted of that.

Given the horrific nature of their injuries, they will never play soccer again. “Football was very important for me,” said Adam. “The only hobby Palestinians have left is football.”

Abu Gharqoud

I met Iyad Abu Gharqoud, the smiley star of the Palestinian national team, at a stony patch next to the Israeli separation wall that slices through Abu Dis, severing it from Jerusalem. “I’ve seen Jawhar and Adam play,” said Iyad. “I know they’d both be promising team members right now." On the wasteland where we met, a donkey was grazing, chewing up the few blades of grass near a rusty goalpost. “This is Al Quds University’s sports field,” Iyad smiled. “The separation wall was built straight through the middle of it. After protests, vigils and court appeals, an Israeli judge agreed to move the wall to the edge of the field, as long as it’s not used as a turfed pitch because it’s next to the wall!” he said.

As we talked further, Iyad made it clear how routine disruption is for soccer players in Palestine. “I don’t go out after playing in case the Israelis catch me at a flying checkpoint, cuff me, and take me back to Gaza. Traveling to matches, we always set off early, as they can keep us for hours at checkpoints, or not let us through at all. They make us strip to our pants often,” he added.

Israel denies there is a conscious policy to disrupt Palestinian soccer. In São Paolo, Sports Minister Limor Livnat said Israel would allow Palestinian athletes to "exit and enter for the purpose of sports, excluding occasions in which there are attempts to make use of sports in order to injure or threaten the security of our citizens."

As the World Cup continues in Brazil, the IDF continue its operation against Hamas and its search for three missing Israeli teenagers. The death toll has reached five deaths in the 12 days since the crackdown began. As tensions escalate, it seems unlikely that Israel will ease up on spoiling soccer for Palestinians, whether in the form of security measures that can clobber innocent people, or an active policy of collective punishment. If it doesn't, the pressure will continue to mount on FIFA to become the first international body to boycott Israel.

Follow Ben Gelblum on Twitter.

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