Palestinian athletes face Israeli hurdles

Gaza’s al-Zeitoun stadium, bombed by Israel in the summer of 2014 and photographed in October 2014.

Mohammed Asad

He went, said Sami al-Daour, from living the dream to negotiating a nightmare.

“My life turned upside down,” the 28-year-old soccer player said as he was walking around the facilities of his new club in Gaza.

Al-Daour, now a midfielder with al-Ahli in Gaza City, is playing the game he loves. But a budding professional career has run head first into Israel’s regime of restrictions on Palestinian movement and his progress in the game has stalled.

“In August 2014, I moved to the West Bank and played for Shabab al-Khalil in Hebron. But I didn’t have a full permit from the Israeli authorities to move freely between the West Bank cities and villages.”

Al-Daour had come to Hebron on a short-term medical permit, but after a couple of months he switched teams and signed to play for al-Samoor. The club obtained a full permit for him and he played there for 18 months, he said.

“Signing for al-Samoor was a turning point. I got a permit, a good salary and had a promising future ahead of me.”

Then in March, Israeli soldiers broke into his house in the center of Hebron. He was arrested and taken to Ashkelon prison in the south of present-day Israel. Two other Palestinian soccer players were also arrested that month.

“My family had sent me my laptop from Gaza so I could play video games during my free time,” al-Daour recalled. “Then one day, 50 soldiers stormed my house. I was playing a soccer game on the computer at the time. They took my laptop and arrested me.”

Al-Daour spent three days under interrogation and seven days in Ashkelon prison, he said, before he was sent back to Gaza.

“The Israelis accused me of having information on my laptop that threatened the security of the State of Israel. Although they found nothing, I was expelled to Gaza, and I have been trying to get back [to Hebron] since.”

Stuck in Gaza

Israel has since released the laptop to the Palestinian side, though al-Daour has yet to take possession. The young man, now signed with al-Ahli club, said the move has proven to be a step down for him in terms of the game he loves.

“It’s incomparable. There is a real professional league in the West Bank. Matches are broadcast on TV and players work hard to be on the national team. In addition to better living conditions – electricity, clean water and freedom of movement – I was paid more than $2,000 per month. In Gaza, I can barely get 400.”

“I have a degree in accountancy and I’ve never been in any political or military movement. I chose to follow my talent and passion. As a soccer player, I will retire in a few years – if I don’t have a serious injury that ends my professional life earlier. With this salary, my future is in real danger,” he said.

“My case was sent to FIFA [the international football federation] and I’m waiting for a response. With the help of the Palestinian Football Association, I hope to go back to my club in the West Bank.”

Sport has been “dramatically affected” by Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Muhammad al-Amasi, the assistant secretary general of both the Palestinian Football Association and the Palestinian Olympic Committee. Al-Amasi said he was familiar with al-Daour’s case, but that it was not unique.

Successive wars on Gaza and the political division between Gaza and the West Bank, he said, have left athletes unable to compete and united national leagues impossible.

“Our greatest problem is the difficulty of getting out of the Gaza Strip, to the West Bank or other countries.”

According to al-Amasi, athletes from Gaza are regularly invited to local, regional and international events, but are routinely refused travel permits by Israel.

“Palestine is the only country that has two leagues and two national teams because of the difficulty of movement. For example, when a team of 11 players wants to leave Gaza for a match or an external training camp, only three or four players get permission, and the whole trip is canceled.”

Devastated lives and infrastructure

Officials suffer the same problems. In early August, three Palestinian Olympic representatives from Gaza, including the head of the team, Issam Qishta, were prevented from leaving the coastal strip and joining the Palestinian team at the Rio Olympics.

“Each year, the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA send equipment to Gaza’s sports clubs,” said al-Amasi. “In addition, specialists and lecturers come to Gaza to train our athletes. But even if the experts can get in, the equipment usually gets detained in the Israeli ports, so we pay more taxes to bring it back.”

Al-Amasi said the psychological effects of these Israeli restrictions are huge.

“Athletes prepare and train for months, and when they get rejected for illogical reasons just ahead of the tournament they had been preparing for it leaves them hugely disappointed and in despair. We try to change the situation, but without the help of FIFA and the international community, nothing will change.”

Perhaps the most notorious case of a Palestinian athlete struggling against Israeli repression is that of Mahmoud Sarsak, a former member of the Palestinian national soccer team.

Sarsak, a Gaza resident, was detained at the Erez checkpoint in 2009, while traveling to the West Bank for a training session. He spent three years in Israeli prison without charge or trial. His family was not permitted to visit him throughout the time of his detention.

Sarsak was eventually released in July 2012 after he refused food for 90 days to protest his detention.

Since then, he has been campaigning to expose the impact of Israel’s policies on Palestinian sports.

Movement restrictions and arbitrary detention are not the only Israeli-erected hurdles Palestinian athletes in Gaza face.

During the 2014 Israeli offensive, a significant amount of Gaza’s sports infrastructure was heavily damaged, according to Alamasi, including Shabab al-Maghazi sports club, al-Shams sports club and the Palestinian Football Association’s building in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. Athletes were among the more than 2,200 people killed and tens of thousands wounded.

“Thirty athletes were killed and 17 were seriously injured in the 51-day war,” said al-Amasi. “The headquarters of the Palestinian Football Association, 20 sports clubs and 10 fields were targeted by Israeli airstrikes.”

Shot 11 times

Athletes in the West Bank are also subject to violence by Israeli occupation forces.

In January 2014, cousins Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, were going home after a soccer training session in the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in al-Ram, a town near Ramallah.

On their way, they were ambushed.

“We were preparing to be on the national soccer team at that time. My cousin, Adam, wanted to light a cigarette, and everything happened in a flash,” Jawhar said.

First, Adam was shot in his legs. When Jawhar tried to carry him and call for help, he was shot himself: seven times in his left foot, three in his right, and one in his left hand.

The attack was perpetrated by an Israeli army unit. “After they had shot us, they unleashed a police dog before dragging us to the ground. They broke Adam’s leg even after shooting it.”

According to Nasser Jawhar, Jawhar’s father, after interventions from FIFA and international media, and with the help of Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Hussein, president of the his country’s football federation and a 2015 FIFA leadership contender, Jawhar and Adam were transferred to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman.

But their football futures were finished and, while in Amman, the family prepared to sue the Israeli government.

“We spent two months in Amman. We were planning to sue after understanding that Adam and Jawhar wouldn’t be able to play again,” Nasser told The Electronic Intifada over the phone.

“Then on our way home, they arrested the kids and tried to make a deal with us.” They were presented with two options, said Nasser. Either “withdraw the suit and have our children out in 50 days, or stick to our decision without knowing the consequences.”

The consequences could have been dramatic as the family understood the army was preparing to claim that one of the boys had tried to throw a bomb at the soldiers. The family decided to back down, to save their children’s future.

Jawhar now coaches children and will graduate from the faculty of law at Al-Quds University this year. Adam studies business administration at the same institution.

“They won’t play again, but fortunately they have a successful life waiting for them,” Nasser Jawhar said.

Al-Daour, for his part, is still playing. But he is finding his enthusiasm waning.

“Although I play the game I love, I’m losing my passion. But I will keep playing football and I will believe in my chances of a better future.”

Mousa Tawfiq is a journalist based in Gaza.