As the Asian qualifying tournament for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup kicked off in Doha in late March, onlookers couldn’t help but wonder, was one of the flags missing? Above the tribune facing the VIP stands were the flapping ensigns with the colors of every participating nation, but between the Kuwaiti and Chinese flags there was a wide gap. It was as if a flag was supposed to be there but wasn’t. This indeed turned out to be the case, as Palestine’s national team did in fact qualify for the tournament, but never made it to Qatar. Although slim, any chances of Palestine qualifying for the Beach Soccer World Cup later this year in Espinho, Portugal were all but dashed.
Only days before the tournament, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) contacted the Beach Soccer Worldwide (BSW), the governing body of beach soccer which falls under FIFA’s umbrella, and released a press release which read: “The Palestinian Football Association officially communicated to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and Beach Soccer Worldwide that the team will not be able to take part in the competition, due to administrative issues outside the event.”
Scratch beneath the surface though, and you will understand that “administrative issues” are the least of the PFA’s problems. In the run-up to the AFC Asian Cup, Palestine jumped 71 spots and reach their highest-ever FIFA ranking, 94th in the world and for a brief stint were in the Asian top ten. Despite losing all their matches, going to Australia in January of this year for the Asian Cup was Palestine’s first ever major tournament since being recognized by FIFA in 1998. Although not a fully recognized state by the United Nations, under FIFA, Palestine is officially and independent country.
Like every other member, Palestine gets funding from FIFA. They also get the bonuses FIFA dishes out, like the Christmas bonus given to all member federations – its sum: $1.3 million.
But not all the players from the Palestinian squad were given the joy of listening to their national anthem play across speakers in Newcastle, Canberra, and Melbourne earlier this year. Australia-based Palestine player Nasr Awad, who was able to play in the tournament, told ABC Australia that “there’s a lot of players that are missing. They’re from the Gaza Strip. They’re good players and they couldn’t come to Australia because they’re in the Gaza Strip.” But most of the team made the 12,000-kilometer trip, why was it so hard to go to Qatar?
Raed Amro, who works with the PFA’s communications and information department, told Mondoweiss that “the Israeli authorities rebuked our request to cross the border. They answered us by refusing to grant any of the players the administrative and technical exit visas to go from Gaza to the West Bank and finally to Jordan, from where we would depart to Doha. Since the Rafah border crossing is closed there was no other means of exiting Gaza. We have reported this incident to FIFA and the AFC but they did not resolve the matter.”
“With sports – especially football – emerging in Palestine, the racist Zionist occupation spares no effort killing and besieging Palestinian sports,” he added.
Attacks on Palestinian Football
Unlike 11-a-side football, whose players play in the West Bank, Gaza, and even abroad, Palestine’s beach soccer team is based in one place – the only sandy coastal area in what is left of Palestine: the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian football league is even broken in two: the West Bank Premier League and the Gaza Strip League. To frequently cross via Israel could cost an arm and a leg – literally.
First, there was the case of Mahmoud Sarsak. Twenty-two at the time, Sarsak was arrested at the Erez Crossing after traveling between the West Bank and Gaza to join his new club. He was accused of being a combatant linked to the Islamic Jihad and spent three years in prison. In 2012, he went on hunger strike after Zakaria Issa, a former Palestine international who was also incarcerated, died shortly after being released. Sarsak admitted that he had been subjected to both physical and mental torture on a regular basis.
In 2014, at another checkpoint, teenagers Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abdelraouf Halabiya were stopped by Israeli patrolmen and shot in the legs repeatedly. Both players will never play football again.
David Zirin, sportswriter for The Nation, reported on the previous two cases and also documented the killing of Ahed Zaqqout, a former Palestinian footballer turned sportscaster and TV host. It was the killing of Zaqqout that led the writer to ask whether Israel killed him deliberately or whether he was part the vast civilian collateral damage that comes with every Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. In an article dedicated to the fallen footballer titled His Name Was Ahed Zaqout: Former Palestinian Soccer Star Killed in Gaza, Zirin wrote: “Attacking soccer is about attacking these very national aspirations. It’s the inhumane act targeting a collective expression of humanity.”
Nothing, however, hits closer to home than the story of the Bakr cousins. All aged between 9 and 11, the four boys were playing football on a beach when an Israeli naval ship mistook them for fleeing fighters and fired shells at the beach. The boys died instantly not knowing what hit them. Palestine’s beach soccer team, who the Bakr boys must have at least caught a glimpse of once in the Gaza Strip’s mere 11km spit of coast, had their dreams taken away from them, but Ismail, Ahed, Zakariya, and Mohammad had the lives they wished to realize their dreams taken away. Rich Wiles, a Gaza-based writer and an award-winning photographer and filmmaker, believes that “stories are endless…a book could, or maybe should, be written about the almost impossible development of Palestinian football.”
Racism in Israeli Football
The Israeli war on Palestinian football is ethereal. Whether it’s a raid on the PFA headquarters in Ramallah or a bomb raid on Gaza, football is always targeted. It’s not only in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In 2004, the only Palestinian club in the Israeli Premier League, Bnei Sakhnin, won the Israeli Cup. Only two years later, Abbas Suan, an Arab-Israeli player from Bnei Sakhnin almost booked Israel a place at the FIFA World Cup in Germany with a late equalizer against the Republic of Ireland. When he returned for a league game with Bnei Sakhnin against Beitar Jerusalem a few weeks after international duty for Israel, he was met with a banner that read “Suan, you don’t represent us” from Beitar fans. Rumours had it Beitar’s president tried to sign him after his heroics for Israel, but Beitar fans would not allow their unique tradition of being the only Israeli club to never sign an Arab player to be broken.
Beitar once tried to sidestep their racist practice when former club president Alexandre Gaydamak signed two Chechen Muslim players. The pair, Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, were not welcomed by Beitar’s hard-core supporters group, La Familia. Then Beitar club manager Eli Cohen, tried to quell resentment from his fans by telling them “there’s a difference … between a European Muslim and an Arab Muslim.” Still, when Sadayev scored his first goal for the club against Maccabi Netanya in 2013, hundreds of La Familia fans walked out of the stadium. The two players played less than a combined total of 15 games for the club and had to be accompanied by bodyguards during their time in Jerusalem.
In more recent times, Beitar’s current coach said that he won’t sign an Arab player out of respect for La Familia. Speaking to an Israeli radio station, Guy Levi said: “I don’t think it’s the right time. It would cause tensions and create much greater damage.” Even it when it came to Palestinian citizens of Israel, like the now retired Abbas Suan, Levi claimed that “even if there were a player who fits in professionally, I would not bring him in, because it would create unnecessary tensions.”
Let us not forget, six Israeli men who were arrested last year for abducting and lynching Muhammad Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem were all members of La Familia.
Next Steps with FIFA
Even though beach soccer is nowhere near as important or popular as association football, barring an entire team from participating in a tournament was the final straw for the PFA. Its President, Jibril Rajoub, who has voiced for Israel to be removed from FIFA many times in the past, reiterated his appeals as the beach soccer tournament in Doha came to a close. A week later, FIFA’s longtime president Sepp Blatter, fully aware of Rajoub’s threats to file a complaint against Israel, met with the PFA president in Cairo on the sidelines of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Congress in Cairo.
Following their meeting, FIFA’s official website published a 130-word article that said “the FIFA President recalled that his objective is to find solutions for the benefit of football development in Palestine and that football should connect, not divide.” Articles that picked up FIFA’s official statement were a bit more direct, with one non-Israeli website headlining the story Blatter Rejects Palestine FA Call to Ban Israel.
Despite Blatter’s diplomatic pacification of the PFA’s request, the PFA will still submit its complaint at the FIFA Congress in May, with Raed Amro telling Mondoweiss, “we expect that in the FIFA Congress in May all members assume their legal, moral, and humanitarian responsibilities towards accountability and punish Israel for its crimes.” Still, many pundits suggest that even if Rajoub and the PFA defy Blatter, there will be little chance the request will be approved. With FIFA Executive Committee members needing a majority of 66% to pass such a resolution, the PFA are trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
FIFA is infamously defamed by the Western media on a weekly if not daily basis for a spectrum of different reasons. But if there’s a way FIFA can change its shattered image with one move, it would be by allowing Palestinian footballers the same rights as footballers other footballers around the world and apply pressure on the Israeli FA. Amro, who believes that FIFA are the only ones who can change the footballing climate in Palestine, but also had a message for his Israeli counterparts, saying “we also expect the obligation of the Israeli federation to recognize the entity and national sporting integrity of an independent Palestine and end its restrictions and practices of arbitrary right.”
“We assure you that the occupation and its practices of war against Palestinian sports and Palestinian athletes does not stop us, not for a single day,” he added.
Recently, Palestine were drawn with Saudi Arabia, East Timor, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates in the qualifying rounds for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Their first away match will be away to Malaysia two weeks after the PFA claim to file an official complaint against Israel at the FIFA Congress on May 29. In the coming months football fans around the world will see whether Palestine will be forbidden from attempting to qualify for another World Cup, a slightly more important one.