A tough decision for Palestinian football

The national team find themselves at a crossroad: Should they be a competitive football side or a political tool to highlight Palestinian suffering? Doing both is impossible under the status quo.

“It is a dream coming true,” said Rami Hamadeh about a call-up that turned into a nightmare. “It is a significant moment for me, and I am so excited to get my spot back in Palestine’s goal. It is where I belong.”

Hamadeh’s call-up for the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia was significant because Palestinians, who are citizens of Israel, are excluded from the national team when they play in Israeli leagues. It’s an unwritten policy that the Palestine Football Association (PFA) put in place as such call-ups might normalise Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. 

“When I played my first game with Palestine, I had goosebumps. I finally felt I was on my people’s team. My team. It was such a good feeling,” said the 27-year-old who made his debut in 2013 for Al-Fida’i, as the Palestine national team is also known. 

He went on to earn 28 caps, having won every domestic title on offer in the West Bank Premier League with Hilal Al-Quds. He received an offer in July 2020 to join Bnei Sakhnin, the only Arab team in the Israeli Premier League. It allowed him to compete at a higher level, but when he took it he was afraid for his place in the national team.

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He had good reason to worry. Abdallah Jaber, a Palestinian citizen who was born in Israel and had 56 caps for the national team, was poised to lead Al-Fida’i. But when he left Palestine for Hapoel Hadera in Israel, after not having received his salary for months, he was slandered and mocked by PFA president Jibril Rajoub and many others in the Palestinian football community. 

“Abdallah will never play for Palestine again,” Rajoub said at the time. 

For Hamadeh, it was supposed to be different. He is playing for a famous Arab team in Israel but he was, surprisingly, dropped at the 11th hour for Palestine’s game against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. Sources around the camp said Palestinian authorities put pressure on the PFA not to field him, especially with the match scheduled for 30 March. 

Known as Land Day, 30 March is the day on which Palestinians demonstrate against the Israeli government’s occupation and confiscation of their land. It’s also the day on which the six people Israeli government security forces killed in 1976 are commemorated. 

Without Hamadeh, Palestine was thumped 5-0. 

21 August 2019: Palestinian players wear white masks in protest against Israeli forces storming the Burj Al-Laqlaq Football Stadium and banning a tournament organised by Palestinian families in Jerusalem”s Old City. (Photograph by Ahmad Gharabli/ AFP)

Football’s place in Palestine 

To understand the sensitivity of Hamadeh’s situation, one needs to know what Palestinian football has gone through up until today. Like the Palestinian people, it is a long and complex, tragic and inspiring history. 

Football arrived in Palestine in the early days of the 20th century. Arab students returning from Istanbul and Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe brought the beautiful game to the country’s shores and it spread rapidly. Football was institutionalised during British rule. 

While the tension between the Arab and Jewish populations gradually grew, a few attempts were made to form a united national team of all Mandatory Palestine communities. Maccabi Tel Aviv club president Yosef Yekutieli founded the Mandatory Palestine Football Federation – the precursor to the PFA – in 1928 and international football federation Fifa recognised it in 1929. Only one Arab player agreed to participate and the general representation of the Arab clubs within the federation was weak. 

In 1948, a war between Israel and the Arab armies erupted after the British exit from Palestine. Thousands of Palestinians were killed while hundreds of thousands fled or went into exile in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the rest of the Middle East and areas that soon became part of the state of Israel.

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From this point, Arab Palestinian football was “on hold” for a few decades. There were numerous attempts to establish a Palestinian team but without a state-funded establishment behind them, it seemed an impossible task. 

“I am a citizen of the world, but my heart now beats for Palestine,” said disgraced former Fifa president Sepp Blatter in 1998, when he announced that Palestine had become a member of the world football governing body he presided over at the time. 

At first, the national team was made up of players from Gaza and the West Bank. The lack of professional experience was evident and Palestine struggled to reach beyond the mediocrity of Asian football.

The second intifada – a wave of violent clashes between Palestinians and Israel that started in 2000 – repeatedly interrupted the football routine. Players were arrested or detained at checkpoints. Others, such as Jamal Ghanem from Tulkarem, were killed.

31 March 2006: Palestinian boys inspect a large hole inside the Palestine soccer stadium in Gaza City, Gaza, after it was hit by an Israeli missile. (Photograph by Abid Katib/ Getty Images)

Using the team to highlight abuse 

Palestinian football witnessed a new dawn in October 2008. “I believe it is a very important moment for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian football family,” said Rajoub ahead of the first match at the Faisal Al-Husseini International Stadium, shortly after he ascended to the PFA presidency. 

Rajoub doesn’t have much of a sporting background despite also leading the Palestine Olympic Committee. He is a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization. He spent 17 years in an Israeli jail when he was young for various guerrilla activities and the Israeli authorities labelled him a “terrorist”. But he knew how to grow Palestinian football from the low point at which the game found itself. 

Rajoub cited Palestine’s two most significant weaknesses as the lack of a steady supply of quality football talent and a story. A story of Palestinian identity. There has been a concerted effort to improve both. 

As a politician and an experienced anti-Israel activist who knew the other side well, Rajoub realised that a strong national team could be a tremendous vehicle for gaining international recognition and legitimacy for Palestine. It was a vehicle that could support a greater sustainable solution, that of a state. To resolve both problems, the Palestinian association invested in scouting for Palestinian talent overseas.

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Fielding Palestinian-origin players from abroad was something the association was already doing right when the country started competing in international football. More and more players from Israel, Jordan, the diaspora in Europe and South America, and especially Chile, where there is a large Palestinian community, got the call to join the team. 

Suddenly, because of football, the Palestinian identity was everywhere around the world, not only in the territories. It was a new robust, sportive, intercultural – universal, even – Palestinian identity that screamed from the red shirt of Al-Fida’i and the football field. 

18 March 2021: A player in action during the final match of an amputee football tournament held in Gaza. Many Palestinians who have lost limbs to Israeli bombs find solace in playing the sport. (Photograph by Ali Jadallah/ Anadolu Agency)

Global attention

The national team has progressed immensely in the past decade. From one of the world’s weakest national teams, they have learnt, improved and won games. Al-Fida’i won the AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives in 2014, which gained them a historic spot in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. Although they completed the group stage with three losses, the love that the Palestinian team received in Melbourne was real. The story of the young, resourceless national team from the war-torn Middle East became worldwide news. 

Soon after that, notable national Arab teams such as the United Arab Emirates and Oman began playing official matches in the West Bank. But politics was always in the background. Rajoub tried to get Israel expelled from Fifa on two occasions, claiming that the state was “harming the freedom of movement and freedom of play” of Palestinians. 

He was unsuccessful, but his actions aided the formation of a committee that eased tensions between the PFA and the Israel Football Association. This committee helped improve the movement of players between the leagues; more than 75 Israeli citizens played in Palestine between 2015 and 2018. More Palestinian Israelis secured a spot in the national team, which helped solidify the identity of Al-Fida’i and spread it among the Arab society in Israel, 20% of the country’s population. 

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Palestine reached its highest ever Fifa ranking of No. 73 in 2018. What made it sweeter was that Israel was ranked 98th at the time. For Palestine, it was like winning a championship. Then, politics struck again. 

The suspicious dismissal of successful coach Abdelnasser Barakat exposed alleged foreign interests behind the PFA’s decision. Rajoub announced that Barakat would move to an administrative role in November 2017. Julio Baldivieso, a Bolivian coach close to Saudi football official Turki Al-Sheikh, replaced Barakat as coach. Baldivieso got the Palestine job allegedly after an agreement between Rajoub and Al-Sheikh regarding Saudi financial support for the Palestinian league. According to different reports, the funds never materialised as an investment in the league.

Baldivieso lasted just three matches before Barakat’s former assistant, Algerian Noureddine Ould Ali, was brought in. Despite this, Palestine qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup and gained their first points with draws against Syria and Jordan. 

The future 

Aside from the devastating loss against Saudi Arabia, which terminated the Palestinians’ World Cup dream and put their 2023 Asian Cup aspirations in danger, the PFA is dealing with the effects of Covid-19. The pandemic has left local leagues in Gaza and the West Bank in a terrible fiscal situation. 

Sound long-term investment in grassroots and youth football is lacking, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are going back to Israeli football. Palestinian football needs to decide its future, whether it wants to become a competitive national team or a political tool to spread the Palestinian message of the suffering they endure at the hands of Israel.

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If it’s the latter, then the project has already reached its peak. But if the aim is to improve and be competitive, then it has to rethink its decision to bar Arab players campaigning in the Israeli Premier League, such as Hamadeh, from the national team. 

It could mark the second new dawn for Palestinian football if this happens, as it would raise the team’s profile and competitiveness. Rajoub took them from amateur to professional, and this is a good time to take them from surviving to competing. If done correctly, the team could then use their voices to highlight Palestinians’ suffering to an even bigger audience. But first, tough decisions have to be made.

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