Photo Credit: Football Palestine Blogspot
When FIFA President Sepp Blatter called on Israelearlier this month to ease travel restrictions placed on players of the Palestinian National Football team, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Blatter not to make football a political tool.
Palestinian football players have never had the luxury of asking Israeli authorities to separate politics from their profession. While Netanyahu may wish for football be left out of the political sphere, the nature of players’ lives under occupation unavoidably connects the two.
After hearing of Netanyahu’s request, Palestinian midfielder Roberto Ketllun told Palestine Monitor, “It’s impossible...even if you tried to think just about football on the field, the political situation comes in immediately, because you face difficulties that come from the political situation. What the prime minister of Israel is asking is unreal. In words it sounds very nice, but it’s unreal, it’s not possible. It’s part of our life.”
Due to restrictions and difficulties in obtaining exit visas from Israel for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, players like Chilean-born Kettlun are often drawn from Palestinian diaspora to play for the Palestinian national team.
After joining the Palestinian National Football team at the age of 20, he witnessed firsthand the challenges that accompany playing football under occupation. While Palestinian descent allows him to play for the team, his Italian-born mother and non-Palestinian passport affords him a markedly different experience of occupation than his fellow teammates born in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The discrimination my teammates suffer in respect to mine is overwhelming. They treat them like animals.”
Football under occupation
The Palestinian National Football team routinely encounters restrictions from Israeli security that limit the team’s capacity for success on the field. Home games are rarely held at the home arena. Players residing in the Gaza strip are generally barred from travelling to the West Bank for practices, and are at times imprisoned. Shipments of sports equipment are delayed at Israeli checkpoints, sometimes never making it into the hands of the players.
Palestinian National Football player Mahmoud Sarsak has spoken adamantly against Israeli repression of Palestinian football. He was arrested July 22, 2009 when travelling from Gaza to the West Bank for a football game despite obtaining permission from Israel to cross prior to the game. Sarsak was charged for involvement with militant group Islamic Jihad and held under the Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law. Adameer reported his detainment was illegal under international law due to absence of evidence regarding his detention. Further violations included Israeli use of solitary confinement, torture, and denial of medical attention to Sarsak. He wasreleasedafter a 96 day hunger strike which garnered international attention.
UEFA President Michel Platini ignored the requests and the championships were held anyway in June 2013.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was given a mandate during the 63rd FIFA Congress in May 2013 to improve the current situation of football in Palestine. After completing his tour of Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, Blatter released a statement regarding his goal of discussing the mandate with Israeli officials, “In a nutshell: to ease the movements of teams, referees - but also football equipment - in and out of and within Palestine.”
According to Article 15 of the FIFA Statutes, FIFA Congress may expel a member if it “seriously violates the Statutes, regulations, decisions or the Code of Ethics of FIFA.” In Blatter’s meetingswith Israeli and Palestinian delegates, Palestinian Football Association head Jabril Rajoub called on delegates of the next FIFA Congress to expel Israel if restrictions weren’t eased.
More than just the game
Kettlun hoped Blatter’s recent visit would impact the potential for Palestinian football.
The team has showed promise to thrive if given the chance. In the 2006 World Cup qualification games, the team placed first in their group after the first two games against Iraq and Chinese Taipei. Shortly before the third match against Uzbekistan, the Israeli ministry requested through FIFA the immediate return of 10 players from Gaza. Hardly able to scrape together a full team, they played with only 15 players and lost 3-0. Kettlun described the mood among players that day,
“We were very angry, very disappointed...but at the same time we had to go out on the field and try to win the game. It’s not the right scenario to be calm and 100% concentrated on the game. Your thoughts of what happened with your team are in your mind. Also, you cannot get injured because there are no players for substitutions.”
When asked about the possible security threat posed by restricted or arrested athletes, Kettlun said,
“We will never know. Nobody wants to think that they were targeted, but who knows. If the policy of Israel is to stop the development of Palestinians on every level, then why not?”
Under the confinements occupation, football is one thing that visibly drives Palestinian passion in the public sphere. In the absence of a prominent national team, support for Spain’s Barcelona Football Club and Real Madrid run rampant. Spain jerseys dot the streets of Palestine and coffee shops fill on game nights. One can only imagine the influence a freely moving national team might have.
The participation of a national football team in an international arena holds the fundamental markings for identity and nationhood. In the rare chances the team is able to participate, the Palestinian national anthem is played, the Palestinian flag is waved, and the players are adorned with the colors of Palestine. Playing football in an international setting allows the players to represent their Palestinian identity on their own terms: something that Palestinians rarely have the opportunity to do.
Kettlun reflected on the importance of the future of Palestinian football in saying,
“I think football here is not just a sport, it's also a tool, a very important tool, for the development of the children and of the nation.”