Part two of James Montague’s study of football in Palestine.
But if football is dying in Gaza, it’s thriving in the West Bank. The comparison between Gaza City and Ramallah is stark. The former has an abundance of three things: bullet holes, burning rubbish and claustrophobic, manic children scarred by the horrors of war. It’s an isolated enclave regressing on every measurement from child mortality rates to employment. Everything that lines a Gazan shopkeeper’s sparse shelves, along with the cars and motorbikes that bump along its unpaved and pockmarked streets, has to be smuggled in, piece by piece, through the Hamas-controlled tunnels that stretch into Egypt.
In comparison, Ramallah looks like Las Vegas. Brand new, alien-looking shopping malls announce their arrival like visitors from the future. Basic foodstuffs in Gaza are scarce; in Ramallah a sign stretches across one road proclaiming the arrival of the new Nintendo Wii, back in stock and yours for just 1,690 shekels (£272).
Jibril Al Rajoub’s private office is a large villa in a quiet suburb of Ramallah, the colour of Jerusalem’s famous sandstone. He’s a busy man these days. The president of the PFA has arguably overseen the most successful period in domestic football in the West Bank’s history. The former national security advisor to Yasser Arafat, who once spent time in an Israeli jail for throwing a grenade at an army checkpoint before being deported to Lebanon, has also just been elected to the Fatah Central Committee, making him one of the most powerful political figures in the West Bank.
He’s known for his fearsome ability to bash heads together to reach agreement, and was the driving force behind securing Palestine’s own home stadium and for launching a now thriving West Bank league. “Getting the league started here was not easy but we have 15,000 to 20,000 coming now to games from the north, the south, from areas that are difficult to travel from,” says Rajoub.
The blame for the failure of Gazan football to progress, he insists, lies with Hamas. “In the West Bank we have two members of Hamas on the board. We have teams for Hamas, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine],” he says. “There is a wall here between politics and factionalism in sport. I think the same should happen in Gaza.”
Back at the Gaza cup final, it was anything but an exhibition in dialogue and tolerance. As Hamas’ forces prowled the touchline, fierce challenges flew in as both sides desperately sought a breakthrough. The only time any unity was displayed was during half-time, when the press, security forces, players and officials lined up, 50 strong, to pray together on the pitch in front of their cameras, guns and boots.
By the time Al Shate scored in the 90th minute, the entire bench was on the pitch celebrating their unassailable lead. The referee had a brief stab at enforcing injury time, before giving up, awarding a 2-0 victory to Al Shate and trudging back to his changing room.
Now all eyes were on the small selection of dignitaries in the stand. The increasingly fraught armed guards gave a hint that someone important had arrived. Ismail Haniyeh beamed in his camel-coloured jacket as he took to the pitch and climbed the hastily constructed podium that had been dragged onto the pitch.
Haniyeh himself had been a tough tackling defender for Al Shate, where he grew up a few metres from the football club. Knowing Haniyeh’s love of the game, Shbair took the trophy before bravely using his platform to beg for the return of the Gaza football league.
“I told him: ‘You used to be a player, please solve this problem of the players quickly,’” Shbair said afterwards. “He replied: ‘I hope so, Insha’Allah.’”
Haniyeh’s appearance was fleeting. Al Shate’s fans, still in the stadium to witness their rare piece of silverware, started to let off fireworks. The Prime Minister’s twitchy, stern-faced personal security men, dressed in all black with black baseball caps, were acutely aware of the potential dangers. After all, the Hamas politician had been targeted for assassination by Israel and, he claims, Fatah in the past. Taking no risks, Haniyeh was bundled, still waving, into the back of a waiting limousine, past the lines of celebrating fans, seconds after he had handed out the last medal.
It was the last time Shbair saw the cup he had just won. It would later emerge, outside the ground, in the hands of a yellow and blue mob, who proudly chanted as the cup was held at the apex of tenuous human pyramid. Thousands of fans rolled down the dusty path towards the Mediterranean, before they, and their cup, disappeared, in to the Al Shate refugee camp, on a wave of adulation.
Shbair didn’t mind too much. “There is not a lot to be happy about here,” he said with a shrug. “The Beach Camp is very crowded, there are maybe 80,000 refugees. The Al Shate team wanted to make the people happy after the war, the martyrs and the siege, and we managed that.”
For a rare, precious few moments, the reality of life in Gaza melted into the background. Al Shate were champions of Gaza. When, or even if, they get the chance to defend their title is another question entirely.
Hijabs for goalposts
The disparity between the two territories was no more evident than a week after the Gaza cup, when Palestinian FA president Jibril Al Rajoub unveiled his latest success. In the shadow of the grey separation barrier, the Faisal Al Husseini Stadium in East Jerusalem was again filled, this time with the high-pitched screams of 10,000 women.
Exactly a year after the men’s team marked Palestine’s first home game, the women’s national team kicked off their debut home match, again against Jordan. The world’s press descended to witness the sight of a stadium of women, most wearing white hijabs, cheer on a team that has had to fight social conservatism across the West Bank and Gaza to get a game.
Three years ago, when I met the team at their base in Bethlehem University, they practised on a concrete handball court. Many had been refused permission to play by their families. Now the team stepped out into a packed new home, one stand full of men, with thousands more locked outside.
“It is still difficult sometimes,” admitted captain Honey Thaljieh, basking in the crowd’s adulation following an unexpected 2-2 draw. “But this has broken all the rules for women here. This was a big event to get both women and men together. In a way, today was like a marriage between the Palestinians.”
Yet movement restrictions meant none of the players in the squad lived in Gaza. And besides, Hamas frowns on women playing the game. “Women don’t play football here anymore, they only play in their bedrooms and in their dreams,” sighed a Palestinian FA official.