By Ramzy Baroud
The Palestine national football team has once again achieved the impossible by qualifying for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, surpassing the Palestinians with class and with convincing victories over Mongolia, Yemen and the Philippines, without conceding a single goal. For the Palestinians, however, it is not just about sport.
This success can only be appreciated in the broader context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In November 2006, the Israeli military banned all Palestinian football players from participating in the final match in the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying group stage. this decision had a major demoralizing effect on all Palestinians. Even rare moments of hope and happiness are often reduced to dust by Israel.
As disappointing as the Israeli decision was, it was nothing compared to the collective shock Palestinians around the world felt when Palestinian players were barred from participating in a decisive World Cup qualifier against Singapore in 2007. Instead of showing solidarity with the Palestinians and condemning Israel, the International Football Federation (FIFA) then decided to award Singapore an automatic 3 to 0 victory.
Also Read: Sports and Politics: FIFA Reaches Height in Hypocrisy by Ramzy Baroud
This is why Palestine’s latest qualifier is historic, as it is further proof that Palestinian resilience knows no bounds. It also sends a message to Israel that its unjust and repressive measures will never break the spirit of the Palestinian people.
The last achievement should also be placed in a different context. It is the third consecutive time that the Palestinian national team has qualified for the Asian Cup final, thanks to an impressive team representing all Palestinian communities, in their historic homeland and in the diaspora.
This moment, however, is tinged with bitterness. Many Palestinian football players, who should have been present at the stadium of the sports center in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – where the qualifiers took place – were absent. Some are in Israeli prisons, others are mutilated or killed. Most of the murders took place in 2009.
2009 was indeed a terrible year for Palestinian football.
In January 2009, three Palestinian football players, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtaha, were killed during Israel’s war against the blocked Gaza Strip. All three were seen as promising athletes with a bright future ahead of them.
Two months later, Saji Darwish was shot dead by an Israeli sniper near Ramallah. The then 18-year-old player would also become a big name in Palestinian football.
In July of the same year, Mahmoud Sarsak’s tragedy began. Sarsak had only been a member of the Palestinian national football team for six months when he was arrested and tortured by Israel in a painful three-year saga.
He won his freedom after going on a hunger strike that lasted more than 90 days. Unfortunately, the recurring health issues Sarsak found himself with meant that his previously promising sports career was over.
The arrests, torture and murders of Palestinian football players became the main headlines in Palestine. This includes the 2014 murder of former Palestinian football star Ahed Zaqqut and the deliberate shooting in the feet of 19-year-old Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and 17-year-old Adam Abd Al Raouf Halabiya.
The two players attempted to cross an Israeli military checkpoint. in the occupied West Bank to return home after a long training session.
These are just a few examples. Attacking Palestinian athletes is a constant point in the “tasks” of the Israeli military.
Palestinian stadiums are often bombed during Israel’s brutal offensives against Gaza.
In 2019, the Israeli army attacked the Al Khader Stadium in Bethlehem and threw tear gas at the players during the match. Five players were hospitalized when hundreds of fans ran out of the stadium in panic.
Also Read: Mahmoud Sarsak: My thoughts are with my comrades Akram Rikhawi, Samer Al-Barq and Hassan al-Safadi by Shahd Abusalama
In 2019, the Palestinians were unable to hold the much-anticipated final of the Palestine Cup because Israel prevented Khadamat Rafah’s team from Gaza from traveling to the West Bank to face FC Balata. Etc etc…
As in any other aspect of Palestinian life that can be easily destroyed by Israel, the Palestinian sports community has learned to be resilient and resourceful.
The Palestinian national football team is the perfect example of this tenacity. When players from Gaza are not allowed to travel, West Bankers come to the rescue. And when players in the West Bank suffer their own setback, Palestinian players from the diaspora are sent to take their place.
Fortunately, Palestinian footballers like Oday Dabbagh are now gaining prominence on the international stage, allowing them to be available when duty calls.
When Palestine defeated Mongolia 1-0 in the Asian Cup qualifier on June 8, Palestinian media reported the sense of euphoria and hope felt throughout Palestine. But when the Palestinian team, known as Fida’i – that is, the freedom fighter – won two more matches with clear victories of 5-0 and 4-0, hopes turned into a real possibility that Palestine could compete well in the Asian Cup. Cup final, scheduled for June 2023.
And maybe Fida’i has a shot at the 2026 World Cup qualifiers.
For Palestinians, sport – especially football – remains a powerful platform of cultural resistance. Every aspect of a Palestinian football game bears witness to this claim. The names of the team, the chants of the supporters, the images embroidered on the shirts of the players and much more, are symbols of the Palestinian resistance, such as the names of martyrs, the colors of the flag, etc. In Palestine, the football is a political act.
While Israel exploits sport to normalize itself and whitewash its apartheid regime in the eyes of the world, Tel Aviv is doing everything possible to hinder Palestinian sport because Israel understands, and rightly so, that Palestinian sport is essentially an act of resistance. is.
It is very sad to think that Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, Wajeh Moshtaha, Saji Darwish and others were not there to witness the celebration of their beloved team’s qualification for a major international tournament. But it is the spirit of these brave cultural warriors that continues to lead Fida’i in their struggle for recognition, their struggle for dignity and their quest for sporting glory.
June 22, 2022 – RamzyBaroud.net – Translation: Chronicle of Palestine – Lotfallah