The result of the Apr 1 aerial attack. The capacity of Palestine Stadium is reported to be between 10,000 and 15,000. Other stadiums in Gaza are Jareco and Yarmouk; the stadia also host political and cultural events. (Hatem Moussa | AP)
Gaza City, Palestinian Authority | Some of the most contested, densely populated land on earth offers little space for football on grass. Even less so now that a massive crater remains near the center of the Palestine national stadium in Gaza City, the result of an Israel Defense Forces bomb attack on Apr 1. On Tuesday, FIFA announced that it would “rehabilitate” the field at its expense following a FIFA deputy general secretary’s uncharacteristically strong comdemnation of the reprisal attack.
“Hitting a football stadium is absolutely counterproductive for peace,” Jérôme Champagne told the Jerusalem Post, expanding his criticisms to include the system of Israeli security checkpoints that he says has hindered development of a domestic Palestinian league. “It is not right to occupy a people.”
FIFA’s comments have energized conservative commentators in the United States, who ask why, on this occasion, the nominally apolitical sporting body has come down harshly on the Israelis. Tom Gross, writing on the National Review website, questions FIFA’s apparent lack of response to a rocket aimed two days earlier at a kibbutz soccer field near the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon. The rockets were launched from Palestinian territory on Mar 30.
[O]ne of those Qassam rockets landed on a soccer field at the Karmiya kibbutz in southern Israel, causing light injuries to one person. Several other Israeli children and adults needed to be treated for shock. … The soccer pitch is regularly used by children and it was only a matter of luck that there were not greater injuries.
Despite suggestions that Palestinian militants were using the Gaza field to launch their homemade missiles, comments from the Israel Defense Forces later made clear that the Israeli action should be seen as a symbolic tit-for-tat. “Knowing the terrorism was unpopulated, artillery fire from Israel was fired directly at it,” said an IDF spokesman. “The terrorism is coming from within them, and they need to know that they are the ones suffering.” Since the beginning of April, Israel has fired more than 2,000 artillery shells into northern Gaza with the possibility of an Israeli invasion looming. Palestinians have launched more than 70 rockets.
Ronaldo, under auspices of the Palestinian Football Association, visited the region in May 2005. Locals were proud that he donned the native kufiyya. (PFA)
How the various football authorities navigate these incidents could affect the regard with which the game is held in the region. Numerous groups, notably the Peres Center for Peace, have sponsored visits from prominent footballers and coaches and staged trust-building sessions and matches between Israeli and Palestinian children. The game has potential as a safe haven, but less so if it becomes yet another place for endless contestation.
Already children in Palestinian territory suffer from lack of spaces to play. The preferred game, in fact, is game of war, writes Mohammed Omer in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. The game has various titles—“Jews and Arabs,” “Army verus militants,” “settlers and villagers”—but consists of “hours-long mock battles with amazingly realistic sound effects.” The boys, in interviews, say they would prefer soccer or computer games, but there are few alternatives. Says 13-year-old Suliman of Rafah’s Al Shabura camp:
Look at the children my age in other Arab countries. They have playgrounds, parks, swings, seesaws, sports fields—they have all kinds of entertainments. But for me, there’s nothing like that. No playground, no place to play soccer. The gun and the war game we invent is the only thing available.
FIFA has, through its Goal project, helped fund a new football association headquarters in Beit Lahia and is soliciting bids for three new artificial-turf pitches. The Palestinian national team, recognized by FIFA since 1998, has been competing in the inaugural Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup in Bangladesh, where it advanced to the quarterfinals before losing 1-0 on Apr 9 to Kyrgyzstan in injury time. They train in Egypt, play “home” matches in Doha—the capital of Qatar—and must continually negotiate the ambiguity of their political situation. (For more about the team, see Alon Raab‘s feature on the documentary Fútbol Palestina 2006.)
The desired separation between politics and sport may simply not be possible in this part of the world. When Israel hosted Denmark for a friendly on Mar 1, Knesset member Talab el-Sana organized a protest of cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad that had appeared in a Danish newspaper. The announcement in late February that the Israel Tourism Ministry would sign on as a sponsor for London club Arsenal in its new Emirates Stadium prompted inevitable questions about the potential clash with the facility’s primary backer, UAE-based Emirates Airlines.
Further, racism among some Israeli fans remains an issue, prompting launch last month of a Kick It Out Israel initiative modeled on the England anti-racism group. The Jerusalem Post‘s Jeremy Last concludes a recent assessment of the problem by linking attitudes in the terraces to the intractable Israeli-Arab dispute.
It is a symptom of the tensions within this country and the entire region. Until the conundrum of Arabs and Jews making peace with each other is solved, it will be nigh on impossible—though all power to those who do—to convince many Jewish-Israeli soccer fans that they should accept Arabs with open arms.
One wonders whether the recent attacks on soccer fields will further politicize the game, detracting from its potential as peacemaker. Messages on a Ynetnews bulletin board responding to the news that FIFA would undertake field repairs in Gaza do not offer encouragement. Referring to the center-circle crater, one cynic writes, “Fill it with white sand, add somes holes—voila[,] a golf course.”