Now that the Israeli blitzkrieg is over, and most international TV crews have gone elsewhere to cover the next nine o clock news crisis, it would be easy to forget what happened to Gaza and its people. But never forget those 22 days.
Always remember that even though the guns have fallen silent and Israeli troops have withdrawn from Gaza, the strip and in fact all of Palestinian territory is still occupied. This is a bare reality which Palestinians themselves are never allowed to forget. The occupation plays not just a part of their life; it is their life, affecting them in every way, big and small, sports included.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel has stifled the functioning of sports associations and institutions, and has bombed leisure facilities used by Palestinian youths. Palestinian children in Gaza have been killed by Israeli bullets or bombs or both while playing football.
For Palestinian refugees, access to sports and leisure is often dictated by what facilities are available in the camps, which are none. The exile means refugees are unable to participate in the national sporting institutions of their country.
Israeli control over all borders and movement has made it impossible for Palestinian sporting teams to assemble and travel for national and international games and tournaments. In 2007 the Palestine national youth football team was refused visas to enter the UK for a three-week tour. The official reason given was that Palestinians are too poor to be trusted to return home, meaning that the devastation visited on the Palestinian economy by the occupation prevented and continues to prevent Palestinian sportsmen from representing their country on the international stage. In that same year, Israel barred the same team from re-entering Gaza for over a month after they competed in Jordan.
The free movement of players between Gaza and the West Bank and between the occupied territories and outside continues to be severely hampered. In preparations for the 2006 World Cup, players from Gaza had to wait for weeks at the Rafah border – controlled by Israel – to join their teammates in Egypt. The one grass pitch in Gaza was eradicated by an Israeli missile. With no pitch, the team was forced to play their home match in a virtually empty stadium in Qatar.
During preparations, the players from Gaza had five of their friends killed by an Israeli air strike. Jerome Champagne, FIFA deputy general secretary, at the time refused to allow the team to reschedule their crucial qualifying match, with the words: Football cannot go faster than politics.
A few years back Israeli authorities made it exceptionally difficult for the Palestinian national team coach, Egyptian Mustafa Hamido, to get an entry visa, a matter that affected the team s preparations for the West Asian Games.
FIFA had put another Egyptian, Hisham Azmi, in charge of following up its Goal Project which aims at developing football academies and grounds in Palestine. Stringent security measures which hampered his movement apart, Azmi s attempts to inspect football venues were blocked several times. He saw no adequate football facilities or grounds and nothing from the so-called mutual cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian football associations.
Discrimination against Palestinians in sport is rife in Israeli institutions. The Hebrew University s sports centre intended to serve students has consistently refused membership to Arabs not affiliated to the university, while accepting Jewish applicants. These conditions imposed by the Israelis have created conditions where it is impossible for Palestinian sport to thrive.
Sometimes, Israel s aggression backfires. No sooner had the 2006 war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah than Israel’s home field advantage was taken away. Israel’s national teams were barred from hosting their games in Israel, including the national basketball team which had to host its European Championship qualifying games in Bulgaria and the soccer team hosting their Euro 2008 matches in Holland.
Soccer clubs Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Yehuda all had to host their European home matches in empty stadiums in various cities in Europe.
Rubbing salt into the Israeli wound was the postponement of an advertising campaign that was agreed upon between the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the English soccer club Arsenal for advertising and promotion of Israel in their stadium and future visits of the team to Israel. The campaign was postponed because of the Lebanese war and because Emirates Airlines of Dubai, the chief financiers of the Emirates Stadium in London, was not thrilled with the idea of being related to an aggressor state on another Arab country.
Life under occupation does not always lead to death and devastation and it would be absurd to even begin to presume that when it does reach such extent, that sports would somehow matter. But the fact remains Israel continues to impose a de facto ban on Palestinian sport and leisure activities, and the freedom enjoyed by Israeli athletes and teams comes at the expense of Palestinians who are deprived of the right to participate in sports from local to international level. More than any other people, Palestinians must have the right to freely participate in all sporting activities to offset the precious few rights they enjoy elsewhere in their lives.