Field artillery | Bombings in kibbutz and Gaza represent new pitch invasion

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.”

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