BY URI LEVY AND RAPHAEL GELLER
From the Palestinian national teamâ€™s debut at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia to this summerâ€™s diplomatic effort to suspend Israel from FIFA, football has become an important instrument for the Palestinians to reach an international audience and gain recognition.
During this summer, football has emphasised the division between Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestine Cup, a two-legged match between Itthiad Shajaiya from Gaza and Ahli Al-Khalil from Hebron, the Cup winners in both Palestinian territories determined which team would qualify for the AFC Cup and represent Palestine internationally. For the first time in 15 years, a club from the Gaza Strip could travel to the West Bank for a match, and vice versa. This game was to become an instrument for internal healing and reunification of a politically divided Palestinian people.
In 2006, Hamas, the dominant political force in Gaza decided to run in the national Palestinian parliamentary elections for the first time. To the surprise of many, the radically Islamist Hamas defeated Fatah, a West Bank based secular party led by Mahmoud Abbas. At the time, Hamas believed their victory meant they would govern both the West Bank and Gaza. But this didnâ€™t exactly work out. As President of the Palestinian Authority (Fatah controlled) Abbas argued that Hamas had no right to take control over the national government since he was still President.
Nearly a year later, Hamas responded by launching a military coup and expelling all Fatah officials. Things got so bad, that Hamas even threw out Fatah security forces off roofs. This rocky relationship between Hamas and Fatah has put a heavy strain on Palestinians in both territories.
Despite the division between the two Palestinian territories in politics, the people want to be united.
But, the chance almost didnâ€™t come. As many expected, the Israeli authorities denied the entrance of several of Ahliâ€™s players to Gaza. Due to Hamasâ€™ control of Gaza, Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter due to the fear of kidnapping and death, and four Israeli-Arab footballers who play for Ahli were initially blocked from attending the game.
Eventually, Israel relented. Despite the emerging tension in the area over these past few months, and thanks to this summerâ€™s FIFA Congress results, the Israelis allowed the entire Ahli delegation, including its Israeli-Arab players, to enter the Strip (although one of the Israeli-Arab players decided not to join the trip, as he felt afraid to enter the Gaza Strip).
Upon arrival in Gaza, Ahli Al-Khalilâ€™s players and management were welcomed as heroes. The energy in the air was electric. The atmosphere was similar to the wedding of a beloved couple who hadnâ€™t seen each other for years. â€œThe feeling was amazing. We were accepted like we were Real Madrid. The people were very excited. It was an unforgettable experience,â€ admitted Stefano Cusin, the Italian manager of Ahli Al-Khalil.
On the matchday, in 40 degree Celsius heat, 4,000 fans arrived Al-Yarmuk Stadium at ten in the morning, some seven hours before kickoff.
â€œAfter we arose from the devastations of last summer, this game is our chance to make history,â€ said Naeem Sureiky, Shejaiya coach.
The neighbourhood of Shejaiya in Gaza was one of the hardest hit during last summerâ€™s 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants. The club’s success became a symbol of recovery and inspired them to stay strong despite what they had been through in the war.
Before the match both teams players exchanged thin scarves designed with the texture of the black and white Kafieh, the Palestinian traditional headdress.
Despite the huge expectations, the game did not provide the excitement fans hoped for. It ended in a disappointing and exhausting 0-0 draw. Nevertheless, spirits were high. At the post-match press conference, Ahli Al-Khalilâ€™s chairman Kifah A-Sharif declared the match â€œa huge victory for Palestinian football and spirit.â€
The second leg scheduled to be played in the Israeli controlled West bank was planned for the 9th of August, but once again, the IDF prevented Shejaiyaâ€™s travel out of the strip. It was unclear if the match could even take place. COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), a unit in the Israel Defense Forces, called four Shejaiya players in for a preliminary border investigation, but they didnâ€™t attend. After Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told them not to go, they refused to attend.
After quickly investigating the four players, Israel again backed down and gave the players permission to travel with the rest of their team to Hebron. Like much of this story, the significance of their passage went well beyond the game of football.
The Gazan championsâ€™ trip included a visit and prayer to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest Muslim site in the world. If it werenâ€™t for this football match, their opportunity to visit the mosque would not have happened.
From the kids on the street to the old ladies that sold olives on the sidewalks, everyone showed the famous â€˜Victoryâ€™ sign towards the white and green bus of Shejaiya. The sign is globally recognized as the resistance and insurgency symbol. The players waved back their own Vâ€™s from the busâ€™ windows.
When the white and green bus of Ittihad finally arrived in Hebron, thousands welcomed the team with huge posters, Palestine flags, and the thumping of beating drums. The fans of Shabab Al-Khalil, Ahliâ€™s city rival, were in charge of the outstanding reception.
The Gazan club was instructed by the Palestine Football Association to stay in the luxurious Abu Mazen Hotel. It was significant having a Gazan football club stay in a hotel named after the current leader of the Palestinian Authority. This relatively small gesture could be a huge step to rekindling the Hamas-Fatah relationship.
In addition, hundreds of Palestinian fans surrounded the hotel as Shejaiya arrived, making it feel like a family gathering.
On match day, the city of Hebron woke up to a festive atmosphere. Red and green flags were seen all over Shuhada Street in Hebronâ€™s downtown area. Though, there were many more green flags then red. This is no surprise, as Hebron is known as one of Hamasâ€™ major strongholds in the Fatah-run West Bank, hence the heavy Shejaiya support.
Ahli, on the other hand, were greeted at their home stadium by just a few of the 12,000-odd fans in attendance. But regardless of the lopsided support, the symbolism of the event was lost on no one.
In the stands, Ahli supporters were seen with posters reading, â€œOne nation, one goal.â€
Senior member of Fatah Jibril Rajoub seemed to agree with the Palestinian peopleâ€™s message.
â€œThis is our step towards one league of Gaza and the West Bank. One league, for one people, in one united Palestine.â€
Unlike the first leg in Gaza, the Hebron match provided an exciting and dramatic finish.
Ahli Al-Khalil won 2-1, and put an end to the Gazansâ€™ dream of representing Palestine in the Asian competition.
â€œItâ€™s an indescribable feeling to score in front of such a huge crowd in such a decisive match,â€ explained Wael Mresat, one of Ahliâ€™s scorers at the game.
In the 71st minute, Alaa Attiyah managed to score an equaliser for Ittihad Shejaiya, but that didnâ€™t prepare the crowd for what was coming next.
With only four minutes left in the match, Ahli were given a free kick around 20 metres from the goal. Ahmed Maher, sent in a perfect curled ball, which nestled into the left side of the Shejaiya goal.
Ahli players ripped off their shirts. They ran around the pitch ecstatically. The players on the bench charged onto the field to celebrate with their teammates.
The scenes in the stadium reflected mixed emotions. Many Shejaiya supporters were left in shock and silence; Shejaiyaâ€™s dream of fulfilling the perfect comeback from the war of 2014 was dead. After a few moments, the celebrating Ahli players took in the scene and consoled their crying opponents.
Despite the competitive disappointment, it really was a â€˜weddingâ€™ matchâ€”reuniting the people of Gaza and the West Bank. It exemplifies just how football has become a major part of the Palestinian national culture and identity over the past few years. Football has already helped bridge the gap between Hamas and Fatah.
For now, Ahli Al-Khalil have a different goal, to continue and make history by representing Palestine in the AFC Cup. Meanwhile, Ittihad Shejaiya will go back to Gaza to rebuild their home through football, and prepare to qualify for next yearâ€™s Palestine Cup.
No matter what the obstacles are, Palestinian football prevails.
RAPHAEL GELLAR IS AN ISRAELI JOURNALIST WHO WORKS FOR THE BBC WORLD SERVICE AND VICE SPORTS. YOU CAN FOLLOWÂ HIM ON TWITTER @Raphael_GellarÂ AND CHECK OUT HIS EXCITING NEW SPORTS AND POLITICS PODCAST @TWFPPodÂ HERE https://soundcloud.com/twfppodcast