Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Flying the flag for Palestine

When a group of talented young soccer players from Gaza enjoyed a couple of dream evenings in Galway earlier this month, they made sure to record every important moment on their smartphones.

The young boys, aged between ten and 14, were delighted to be guests of honour at Galway United’s big game against the Irish champions, Dundalk FC, and they were determined to video the highlights for an absent friend.

The League of Ireland is hardly the most glamorous competition in Europe but, with 2,600 passionate fans in the ground, it was the biggest game any of them had attended in their short young lives.

When they performed a guard of honour to welcome the two teams onto the pitch at Eamon Deacy Park for the big televised game, the phones were produced.                        
The Al-Helal boys in Galway.
Photo: Sean Ryan. 

When half of the main stand stood up to sing for Palestine, they filmed the hospitable crowd with tears in their eyes.

When they were beckoned into a room under the main stand after the game, to meet no less a figure than the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, they were quick to produce the phones.

They were absolutely thrilled. They filmed for their mothers, their fathers, their siblings and their friends back in Gaza, but they had one young boy in their hearts and mentioned him every day.

When they were entertained by a community circus in Kinvara, a village which boycotted Israeli goods during the bombardment of Gaza in 2014, they kept filming.

They put the cameras away before hammering the locals from Kinvara United, displaying amazing skills, but took them out again after the game.

“This one’s for Karam,” they kept telling each other.

One of the organisers of the trip, Zoe Lawlor, eventually told me that they were sending daily messages to a team-mate, Karam Zaidan, who had been refused permission to travel.

It took Gaza Action Ireland and the Al-Helal Football academy three years to plan the boys’ Irish tour, in which they won all their games against boys of the same age in Dublin, Galway, Wexford, and Tipperary.

The trip had been cancelled when the youngsters were refused exit permits by the Israeli authorities, despite having the necessary visas, travel documents, and funds to make it to Ireland.

Three weeks after the ten day tour was called off, the Israelis eventually allowed 14 of the 15 boys to travel at short notice, along with two of the seven adults who were meant to accompany them to Ireland.

From Gaza to Kinvara.
Photo: John Kelly.
The boys were in tears when the much-anticipated trip was called off and there were more tears when they learned that Karam would have to stay behind.

As a small child, Karam suffered horrific injuries during the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2009. He has recovered to become one of the best soccer players in the tiny strip of land which is home to 1.8 million people, but he’s disfigured for life.

He plays for an academy which takes in the best players from throughout the tiny enclave and his team’s ground in Northern Gaza has been bombed twice by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in recent years.

The only reason the trip organisers could think of for Karam to be refused permission to travel – while all his team-mates made it to Ireland – was that the Israeli authorities did not want Irish people to see the extent of his injuries.

Many of the boys at the Al-Helal academy were traumatised by the 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which an estimated 2,250 people – including more than 551 children – lost their lives.

The boys have survived two major bombardments in their short lives and a female child psychologist was also left behind. It meant there was huge pressure on Ayed and Mohammed, the two adults who accompanied them to Ireland.

Life is not “normal” if you are a soccer player in Gaza and things which others take for granted, such as hopping onto a bus to play an away game, can be virtually impossible for those who live on the coastal strip.

Just last month, the Palestinian Cup Final was cancelled after the Israeli authorities barred a number of players from Gaza from entering the West Bank to play the second leg.

There are only three exits from Gaza, which has been described as the world’s largest prison. One is almost permanently closed by Egypt and another is only for freight.

In late July, the Shabab Khan Younis team attempted to travel to the West Bank via the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint, which is the only way out.

The Israeli authorities held the team for 12 hours before barring six players from entering Israeli territory.

As the team was left with only ten players for the game the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) said it had no option but to call off the final.                                    
Celtic "ultras" flying the flags at Parkhead.

“This behaviour is embarrassing. The players arrived at the checkpoint and were forced to wait 12 hours and to undergo interrogations and checks that have no relationship to security,” said PFA chairman Jibril Rajoub. 

“I heard they were asked about their neighbours and about all kinds of things in Gaza that have no connection to security. The sole purpose was to wear them down for hours upon hours in the burning heat, and in the end to allow only part of the team to pass the checkpoint and reach Hebron.”

He said he didn’t think there was anywhere else in the world where soccer players were treated in this manner.

But these kinds of obstacles are second nature to Palestinian footballers.

In November 2006, October 2007, and May 2008 games involving the Palestinian national team were called off because the players were refused permission to travel to fulfill their fixtures.

A striker for the national team, Ziyad Al-Kord, had his house destroyed by the IDF. Three members of the team (Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Mostahe) were among those killed during the same three week bombardment in 2009-9 in which young Karam sustained his injuries.

Two West Bank villages which featured in a promotional video by FIFA, world football’s governing body, only last month are now making headlines for all the wrong reasons. FIFA claimed that football was helping to bring the Palestinian nation together.

Since the video was released a month ago, houses in the villages in the South Hebron Hills have been demolished in order to make way for Israeli ‘settlements’ which are illegal according to international law.

I thought about Karam, the cancelled Cup Final, the dead players, and the demolished houses this week, when UEFA (European football’s governing body) threatened to impose a fine on Glasgow Celtic FC after last week’s Champions League game against a team from Israel, Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

UEFA has described the Palestinian national flag as an “illicit banner” after hundreds of Celtic fans flew them at Parkhead. Even though Palestine is now a member of the global football “family” and competes in international games. .

Celtic, founded in 1888, was the club set up by and for Irish immigrants who experienced discrimination and sectarianism when they emigrated to Scotland.

Like the Palestinians, the Irish have some knowledge of occupation and colonization. The people who left places like Donegal and Tyrone to begin new lives in Glasgow had a keener understanding than most of what it’s like to live under occupation.

“The situation in Palestine is a classic example of land that is being taken from people who lived there for generations. It chimes in with the course of Irish history,” Scottish historian Tom Devine told Al-Jazeera.

Thankfully, fans of Celtic FC have already turned the UEFA fine into a good news story, by pledging to match the fine by raising funds for a youth soccer team in the West Bank and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Money has been flooding in for the campaign, with more than £100,000 raised for Palestinian charities within just a few days.

“Celtic is all about standing up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice and therefore I’m now delighted by a UEFA fine that’s only helped draw more attention to the human tragedy and showing how solidarity can force change,” said Celtic fan Will Gardner.

In the 1980s, a boycott of South Africa - including a ban on tours by sporting teams - helped to isolate the Apartheid regime. People now believe it is time to impose similar sanctions on Israel, until Palestinians are given some sort of hope for a peaceful, just future.

At the moment, there is no hope for the people of Gaza.

In an ideal world, there would be no place for “political” flags at a football ground.

But this is not an ideal world and UEFA’s fine smacks of hypocrisy in the face of European football’s refusal to address the issue of why Palestinian soccer players are treated so appallingly by the Israeli authorities.

Until a youngster like Karam has the right to undertake the kind of team tour which is taken for granted by gifted soccer players all across Europe, football fans should have a right to fly the flag in solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine.

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