Of all the many crimes perpetrated by the Israeli military during Operation Protective Edge, the euphemistic title given to last year’s barbarous assault on the Gaza Strip, one in particular stays in my mind. On the 17th July shells launched from a gunboat off the coast of Gaza, killing the four brothers who were playing football on the beach. Ismail, Ahed, Zakaria, and Mohammed Bakr aged 9, 10, 10 and 11 respectively. It’s important to remember their names – because even in the midst of their condemnation many in the mainstream media never even thought to ask. Was this the purpose of Protective Edge? The footballer Joey Barton tweeted: “This is not war. These are not combatants. They are just innocent children. This is ethnic cleansing.” It was re-tweeted 19,471 times.
The awfulness of that act stayed with me for a long time, its intensity refusing to diminish over time. They were children playing on a beach. The very act of playing is to cut oneself off from the real world, to escape, to laugh, to enjoy. The idea of play resonated with me, accentuating their tender ages. Play is what children do, it’s child’s play, a world of imagination, possibility and innocence. Yet these children were slaughtered as they kicked a football across the sand.
Rewind by a little over a year to the 18th June 2013 and there was a very different type of football taking place: football as a sport, a commodity and an exercise in international relations. The final of the European Under-21 Championships is being held in the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Israel had won the right to host the tournament in 2011, beating off competition from England & Wales, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic – all countries, you will note, which are actually in Europe.
Israeli finally secured membership of UEFA in 1994, some twenty years after it had left the Asian Football Confederation. Its national team regularly competes in the European qualifying groups for the European Championship and the FIFA World Cup, its club sides compete in the Europa Cup and UEFA Champions League. This was, however, the first time they had staged a premier European football event.
As the Championships approached, so the voices ranged against Israel hosting the competition became increasingly loud. In November 2012 more than 50 professional footballers, including such players as Eden Hazard, Demba Ba and Abou Diaby, dared to blur the line between athlete and activist, penning an open letter to European football’s governing body to express their solidarity with the people of Gaza. A petition was circulated by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign calling on UEFA to move the tournament. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of the anti-Apartheid struggles in South Africa, co-signed a letter condemning Israel’s “cruel and lawless behaviour” and lambasted UEFA for showing “total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women”.
In the end the campaign fell on deaf ears. For all the sympathetic noises that emanated from UEFA, President Michel Platini would not be moved. But the level of enthusiasm for a sporting boycott, relatively small though it may have been, was surprising.
Staging a sports mega-event allows the host nation to project a certain image on the international stage. This holds true whether one looks at the UK government and the business-friendly London 2012, or Putin’s use of Sochi 2014 Staging the (mini-mega-event) European Under-21 Championships was an example of how sport can play a vital political role for Israel. Their inclusion into the European sporting family acts to legitimise a state founded on terror and expulsions; it aids a process of sanitisation wherein the brutality meted out on a daily basis to the Palestinian people is reduced to mere background noise. It came as no surprise that with the tournament fresh in the minds of European football’s governing authorities Israel launched a bid to host the 2020 Euros. UEFA rejected the bid due to Israel’s “complex” situation.
Of course, sport plays an important role for the Palestinians too. In a world where their very existence is denied, sport is a visible expression of Palestinian nationhood. Sport becomes a source of pride, joy in the face of adversity. Nowhere was this clearer than in the recent Asia Cup. In 2014 the men’s national football team qualified for the Asia Cup, the very first time they had reached the finals of a major tournament. When the competition began in Australia at the start of the year the team were greeted as representatives of Palestine. Yet only a week before, the Australian representative at the United Nations had voted against the resolution calling for the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state by the end of 2017.
The very fact that Palestine has both men’s and women’s international football teams – let alone qualifies for international tournaments – is testament to the sheer resilience of the Palestinian people. Sport is subject to all the same restrictions, problems and horrors that characterise Palestinian life in general. Footballers are routinely stopped from travelling, both within the Palestinian territories and overseas to play international fixtures – the most famous case coming in 2007 when the entire men’s football team were denied exit visas to travel to a World Cup qualifier in Singapore. With Israel bisecting Gaza and the West Bank, Palestine runs two separate football leagues, although only seven seasons were completed between 1977 and 2007.
Unsurprisingly sports facilities are sparse. Sports pitches are at a premium, and few have the luxury of grass. The embargoes placed on Palestine by the Israeli government stop all manner of sports goods from entering the country. Palestinian footballers, all on desperately poor incomes, are given a free pair of boots by the Palestinian Sports Authority – but there is no guarantee that they will fit. The stadium in which the Palestinians once played their matches has largely been reduced to rubble, first in an Israeli bombing raid in 2008, then again in 2012.
Such is the state of Palestine’s football stadia, training facilities and pitches that FIFA announced in January that they would be giving €840,000 to aid the development in Gaza and the West Bank. That figure is loose change compared to the vast sums sloshing around Europe’s top leagues. But it is worth placing in context. In 2013 Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s most successful football club, signed striker Tal Ben Haim for a record €1.1million. In one transfer a single team spent more money that Palestinian football can afford to spend on infrastructure.
Given the sheer levels of devastation wrought by the Israeli military it is tempting to conclude that Palestinian sport has been an inevitable, perhaps even unintended, casualty in a wider conflict. Yet evidence suggests that Israel has deliberately targeted Palestinian sports.
The list of Palestinian sporting figures that have been killed, injured or imprisoned by the Israeli state is horrifyingly long, and these incidents have been catalogued elsewhere. Many people will be familiar with the incredible story of Mahmoud Sarsak, the footballer who, having been illegally detained by the Israeli military for three years, staged a hunger-strike that drew worldwide attention and the support of Eric Cantona and, eventually, Sepp Blatter. Less well known is the tragic tale of Jawhar Nassar Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya. Israeli soldiers opened fire on the young footballers as they approached a checkpoint. Falling to the floor they were attacked by dogs and subsequently beaten. As they lay battered and beaten, fearing for their lives, both were shot in their feet. They will never play football again.
Why would Israel target Palestinian sport? In part it is certainly an attempt to prevent the Palestinians enjoying even a moment of normality or excitement. Secondly, as Sarsak has suggested, Israel are all too aware of the political importance of sport: “Sport can help strengthen the relationship between cultures, which is why the Israelis are trying to stop such activities.” As a member of FIFA, Palestine enjoys a diplomacy through sport that it is otherwise denied in economic and political spheres. Palestinian sport suggests the possibility of a Palestinian nation state and as such must be quashed at every opportunity. With these considerations in mind the call for a sporting boycott of Israel becomes a crucial plank in the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Sport, by virtue of its global popularity, offers an opportunity to raise awareness of the Palestinian cause amongst people with whom we might never otherwise engage. The reaction to the tweets of Joey Barton and Mario Balotelli or the wristbands of Moeen Ali demonstrates this quite clearly. Derek Birley, the historian of English cricket, once suggested that sport carries within it no morality, only that which is brought to it by the players and spectators. Sport is therefore an arena, literally and figuratively, of struggle. Mahmoud Sarsak once told me, “Football is my weapon”. It should be ours too. And I can think of no better place to begin than the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in September, when Wales play host to Israel.