By Ahmad Ghazal
Due to the current situation in the Gaza Strip, and with the numerous difficulties Gazans face, they try hard to escape from their reality by entertaining themselves, for example, by playing and watching football.
During the 10-year siege imposed on Gaza since 2007 and the three offensives launched within six years, Israel has committed violations which threatened the existence of Palestinians. Israel placed obstacles within the social, economic, political, and cultural spheres of life. Not only did Israel oppress Palestinians in Gaza, it also violated their rights to play sports, as it destroyed much of their clubs, and playgrounds, arrested players, and confiscated sports equipment.
Sports, mainly football, seems to provide a refuge for Gazans to relieve their suffering. Playing and watching football matches paint a vivid picture about how Gazans run away from their tragic life. No matter where Gazans go or who they meet, they try to avoid speaking about the political situation and financial crisis they face. They talk about and discuss sports, including local, Arab, and international championships. However, power outages in the Gaza Strip prevent them from enjoying or even watching matches.
Ali Al-Bahtity is a citizen from Gaza. He studied biology and graduated in 2013. He did not find work yet and lives in his narrow home with ten family members. On asking Ali about how football reduces his suffering, he expressed his anger at the current situation: “Life conditions in Gaza, including the three offensives against us, the siege imposed on the Strip, electricity cuts, the lack of food and medicine, unemployment, and the closure of borders makes our life tragic. I resort to watching football matches in order to get rid of my miserable situation,” he said.
Khaled Shahwan, who lives in Gaza and works at a glass factory said, “Gaza is uninhabitable now; all of our basic needs are not met. We want to lead a decent life without problems or difficulties, as all people in the world do. Sport is a means to stop thinking about our political and economic problems. When I see football fans in the stadium supporting their favorite teams, I feel that I am isolated from the world and start thinking why our life in Gaza looks like this. I am 30-years-old and I have never left the Gaza Strip. I ask God to help us.”
Lutfi Elwan, 66, agrees with both Khaled and Ali. He said, “Israel should be punished for committing crimes against us. We lead a miserable life. Israel is responsible for depriving Gaza players from being professional internationally.” “We don’t have any options except playing and watching football matches. Sport, particularly football, is a way of life through which we express ourselves. We consider football a means of proving to the world that we exist and insist on life peacefully and freely,” he added.
The Israeli occupation obstructs Gaza’s sport development. It damages football infrastructure and prevents sports teams and players from traveling out of Gaza. The Israeli occupation also violates human rights of Palestinian footballers and prevents European and Arab football administrators, coaches, even players from coming to the Strip. In 2014, the Israeli occupation refused to issue visas to five Gazan players chosen to join the Palestine national team in the Asian Cup qualifier in the Maldives.
During the 2012 offensive on Gaza, Israeli warplanes targeted Al-Yarmouk and Palestine’s playgrounds. Gaza sports officials were forced to suspend the Gazan league for a permanent period of time, but they challenged the Israeli occupation, resumed the league and organized matches on only three playgrounds out of five. In 2014, the Israeli occupation destroyed dozens of sports institutions and houses belonging to players such as that of the head of Al-Daraj football Club, Sam’aan Atallah, and Abdallah Salama, a player at Rafah Football Club.
Israeli forces killed, injured, and arrested many Gazan players. During the offensive on Gaza in 2012, Israel killed 14 players, including Ayman Kord, a player from the Palestinian national team and Jabalya Youth Football Club, and Wajeeh Moshtaha, a defender of Shijaeya Football Club. In the last aggression on the Gaza Strip in 2014, the Israeli forces killed 28 sportsmen, including Abdelrahman Al-Zamli and Mahmoud Farahat. They also targeted four children, from Bakir family, playing football on a Gaza beach.
Mahmoud Sarsak, a player at Rafah Football Club was arrested in 2009 and held without charge or trial. He went on a 90-day hunger strike to protest his detention until he was finally released.
The Israeli occupation not only arrests Gazan players but also holds sports equipment and devices. It imposes heavy taxes on Palestinians who buy sports equipment. It often prevents Gazan players from playing in the occupied West Bank, or in Arab or European clubs. Players in the Palestinian national team such as Ahmed Kashkash and Mohammed Shebair from Gaza were banned from obtaining passports to join the national team in the West Bank.
Mousa Al-Reafi, a goalkeeper of al-Toffah football Club in Gaza city, said, “I believe football is everything to me. I hope to represent Palestine at the national level and play in the West Bank, where players are chosen to play in clubs in Egypt or the Gulf. However, I think this is only a dream that will never come true as long as the Israeli occupation is here.”
Supreme Youth and Sports Council board member and Head of Amwaj cable TV channel, Abdulsalam Haniyeh, commented on the role of the Ministry of Youth and Sport in Gaza in developing sports, saying, “The ministry is making the utmost effort to make people in Gaza forget their bitter suffering and hard conditions. It seeks to build new playgrounds, develop sports clubs and meet the sports needs of the youth, to improve their skills and abilities.”
He added that the ministry undertakes activities and organizes festivals and championships to assist youth and talent that the Israeli occupation tries to crush. He highlighted the role of Amwaj cable TV: “It is established to serve those who look for work and for the poor who are not able to pay money in order to watch matches on satellite TV channels. Another main reason behind this is to enable prisoners in the Israeli jails to watch matches.”
Israel not only intends to defeat Palestinians, but also to crush their will and spirit. Yet, Israel will not be able to crush Palestinians’ love for football, one kick at a time.
– Ahmad Ghazal is a Gaza-based translator and a fan of Barcelona Football Club.
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