Saudi-Israeli ties score goal with West Bank football match

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip watch the football match between the Saudi and Palestinian national teams. They would require almost impossible to obtain Israeli permits to watch the game live in the occupied West Bank just a few kilometers away. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

The match between Saudi Arabia’s national football team and its Palestinian counterpart ended in a scoreless draw on Tuesday.

The real game, however, lies in the context of normalization in which the match took place.

This was the first time the two teams faced each other in the Palestinian home field, Faisal Al-Husseini International Stadium in the occupied West Bank town of al-Ram, north of Jerusalem.

Many Palestinians and their supporters were outraged at the Saudi decision to play in the West Bank.

They view it as normalizing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, because the Saudi players cannot enter Palestinian territory without Israeli permission.

Does the match violate boycott terms?

While the Saudi team’s visit did not directly violate the guidelines of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights, it cannot be viewed outside the context of official normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) stated.

The BNC is the steering group for the BDS campaign.

According to the BNC, the Saudi team circumvented the BDS guidelines by acquiring entry permits from the Palestinian Authority, rather than directly from Israel.

But ultimately Israel has the final say and the Saudi players could not have entered the West Bank without Israeli agreement.

Israel controls all movement in and out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority collaborates closely with Israeli occupation forces under the banner of “security coordination.”

Saudi sports officials announced that they were invited “at the request of brothers in the Palestinian federation” earlier this month.

Men in football uniform pose with man in suit

The Saudi national football team meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on 13 October. 

Thaer Ganaim APA images

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the Saudi players upon their arrival in Ramallah on Sunday.

Abbas made a trip to Riyadh days after the match, meeting with King Salman and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

The crown prince is widely suspected of giving the order to a team of Saudi assassins to abduct, murder and dismember Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul a year ago.

Earlier this month, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist party, called for the cancellation of the Saudi team’s visit, accusing the PA of promoting relations between Israel and Arab states.

Shift in position

Notably, the Saudi team had previously refused to play in the occupied West Bank to take a stance against normalization with Israeli occupation.

The team’s unprecedented decision to play in al-Ram implies that this anti-normalization position has shifted.

Arab sports teams have historically refused to play in the occupied West Bank to avoid legitimizing Israeli occupation.

Solidarity with Yemen

Social media users expressed outrage at the Saudi visit using the hashtag “Athletic normalization” in Arabic.

Some called on Palestinians to raise the Yemeni flag in an expression of solidarity.

Yemen has been subjected to Saudi-led bombardment and blockade since 2015, killing thousands of civilians.

The PFLP also called for the event to become “a platform to express the Palestinian people’s solidarity with their brothers in Yemen and to confront normalization.”

One social media user pointed out that despite heavy presence by PA security forces aimed at preventing protests by Palestinians, at least one Yemeni flag was raised:

The BNC said that Palestinians “reject injustice and oppression in all its forms everywhere” and stand with Yemenis “against the aggression, siege and massacres” committed by the Saudi-led coalition.

Whitewashing Israel’s image

Israel unsurprisingly used the Saudi team’s presence to whitewash its image.

The Saudis visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem on Monday under the protection of Israeli occupation forces, Quds News Network reported.

Israeli forces briefly arrested Palestinians who protested the team’s presence in Jerusalem, and ordered them to stay away from the al-Aqsa mosque compound for more than two weeks.

Israeli forces were also escorting dozens of Jewish settlers to the site during the same day and preventing Muslim worshippers from praying at the al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel’s Arabic-language propaganda Twitter account celebrated the Saudi team’s visit, and expressed hope that the “sportsmanship will extend to include a match between Saudi Arabia and Israel as well.”

The “Israel in the Gulf” Twitter account, which calls itself Israel’s “virtual embassy” in the region, also celebrated the visit:
Arabic-language Israeli military spokesperson Avichay Adraee used the team’s visit to propagandize about supposed “freedom of worship in Israel.”
He did not mention that millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are prevented by Israel from freely accessing their holy sites in Jerusalem.

Restrictions on movement also extend to sports.

Last month, Israel denied a football team in Gaza permission to travel to the occupied West Bank for a Palestine Cup match.

The FIFA-recognized competition determines which team will represent Palestine in the Asian Champions League.

When Israel is not barring Palestinian athletes from competing nationally and internationally, it habitually injures, disables, maims and kills them.

A senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank whose board includes former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, noted the political interests underlying the Saudi visit.

“The Saudis are yielding to Ramallah’s request of playing in the West Bank in order to offset a sense that they are normalizing with Israel while ignoring Palestinian needs,” Ofer Zalzberg stated.

Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk called the visit a “cool piece of soccer diplomacy.”


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.