While football is slowly dying in Gaza, it is thriving on the West Bank
Ribhi Samour scrawled his instructions in exaggerated flourishes on the faded green chalkboard that hung from the wall of the Palestine Stadium’s decrepit dressing room. The coach of Al Shate Sporting Club had gathered his players, all sitting in nervous silence, for one last briefing before the biggest match of the season would decide who would be Gaza’s undisputed champion.

They had good reason to be nervous and for Sammour to be especially exacting about his tactics for the big match. For one, their opponents, Al Salah, a new team aligned with Hamas, were an almost unknown quantity and the match was to be watched, if rumours were to be believed, by Hamas’ disputed prime minister, and one of Israel’s most hated opponents, Ismail Haniyeh.

Equally as important was the weight of expectation. Al Shate, a mixed team of Fatah and Hamas members hailing from the 80,000 strong Al Shate refugee camp, and Gaza’s oldest and most popular team, had not won any silverware in almost a quarter of a century. But the most recent impediment to breaking their poor run wasn’t the lack of talent or even motivation. There simply hadn’t been any other teams to play against.

Football has slowly been dying in Gaza. War, instability and an Israeli siege has brought Gazan society to the brink of collapse. Its football league managed to survive even the darkest of days until, finally, it was cancelled after Hamas violently overran the Gaza Strip in 2007, creating a seemingly intractable schism between the militant Islamic fundamentalist force and Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat and its more secular political rival.

It wasn’t just the political and economic apparatus they seized: they also forcibly took over Gaza’s top football clubs, angering the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Football Association [PFA] based in the West Bank. Like in almost every area of Palestinian society, football has been paralysed by the internal conflict, leaving the fans, players and senior politicians angry. Now all that’s left is a hastily arranged cup, branded as a so-called “dialogue and tolerance” cup, organised by the clubs themselves, and resentment at the politicians who have tried to control the sport for their own ends.

“We have no championship and we haven’t won any trophies since 1983,” Sammour explained after he had directed his players on to the pitch. “Hamas and the Fatah government in Ramallah do not give us the chance to play, so the 16 teams got together and we were given some money by the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] instead.”

Sammour strode into the unseasonably warm, early autumn afternoon to a deafening crescendo of cheers and drums. With little to do and even less to get excited about in Gaza, 5,000 hyperactive fans had made the journey to the stadium in Gaza City, the blue and yellow of Al Shate dominating the terraces. In front of them stood camouflaged members of Hamas’ security forces armed with machine guns, ready for any crowd disturbance. In the confusion, only the players heard the referee blow to start the match.

How different things were a year ago. October 26 marked the one-year anniversary of Palestine’s first home international, against Jordan, in the purpose-built Faisal Al Husseini Stadium on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, when 15,000 fans turned up to watch their team draw 1-1 in a hugely symbolic match. Hopes were high that it would usher in, if not a new era of Palestinian football, then at least a normalisation of a game scarred by political infighting, Israeli movement restrictions and poor results. But in Gaza, the civil conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and the subsequent Israeli war, has shattered all that.

Last-minute calls
Ibrahim Abu Salim, vice-president of the PFA and the man in charge of football in Gaza, made some last-minute phone calls from his office on the morning of the match. “We as sports people want to remove sport from politics, but politicians on both sides, Hamas and Fatah, play on this, they try to make politics come into sport,” says Salim.

“The main problem lies with Hamas. When Hamas hands back the clubs to their legal board of directors, sport will be running again in Gaza as in the West Bank.”

More precisely, it is the military wing of Hamas that has so far refused to hand back the clubs to their rightful owners. Salim adds: “The political wing wants this to return the clubs to their legal owners [but] they [Hamas’ military wing] want to be within the Fatah clubs, to have control and channel the minds, the thinking,
of the youth.”
Football holds a powerful place in Palestinian hearts; partly to do with the game’s ubiquity, partly to do with the fact that FIFA is one of the few truly international bodies that recognises a Palestinian entity.

In the slow process towards self-determination, the Palestinian leadership realised that to be a proper nation, you needed a proper national football team.

So when FIFA controversially recognised Palestine in 1998, it offered an opportunity to publicise and win concessions for the Palestinian cause in a way that political channels had failed to do. The dream was to reach the World Cup finals in Germany in 2006, a dream destroyed largely by Israeli movement restrictions.

Al Shate’s captain Hamada Shbair used to be a regular international, but not any more. Since Israel’s war in Gaza, no players based in the strip have been allowed to leave. Up until then, Gaza’s most talented players had been poached by the West Bank league, famed as it is for producing the best footballers. At least 50 managed to make it to the West Bank and 14 now turn out for the national team.

But Shbair has remained, angry that his career has been put on hold due to internal and external conflict. “As a national team player I’ve had big difficulties in playing because of the siege,” he says. The last time he was allowed to leave was for a tournament more than a year ago. “I can’t play outside, to be the member of another team. I was offered chances in Jordan and Egypt, but I’m still here.”

Part two tomorrow