In Palestine, Brazilian football superstar Ronaldo is a hero. But the visit of the Real Madrid striker to Ramallah as a good-will ambassador for the UN Development Programme is likely to bring only temporary cheer. The aim of Monday’s visit was to highlight poverty and to foster a positive atmosphere in an area ravaged by occupation and violence.
Ronaldo made a number of appearances in Ramallah and its twin city, al-Bira, accompanied by Palestinian Authority Minister for Social Affairs Hasan Abu Libdeh. He inaugurated the Ronaldo Centre for disadvantaged children and school drop-outs below the age of 15. He briefly met Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei in the latter’s office where he autographed footballs. And Palestinian sports officials briefed him on the troubles sportsmen in Palestine face. In a gesture meant to boost the athletes’ morale, Ronaldo played football with them for a few minutes amid applause from fans.
Most of the problems stem from the Israeli occupation, Samir Isbaihat, Director-General of the Palestinian Youth and Sport Ministry, said. “The Israeli occupation has effectively paralysed the athletic movement in this country. The things people abroad take for granted, even the smallest tasks, are formidable challenges for us.”
Isbaihat told Aljazeera.net Palestinian teams could not travel freely from one city to another inside Palestine, adding that travelling abroad was extremely difficult. In some cases, Isbaihat said, children playing football were fired at and killed by Israeli snipers.
Ronaldo was able only to briefly encourage sportsmanship among both Palestinian and Israeli athletes. “I am happy to see you joyful and optimistic, and I hope the peace process will proceed,” he told a large crowd at the Palestinian Palace of Culture.
One teenager said: “This at least allows us to have a semblance of normalcy for a few moments. “There are a lot of political guests coming here, but normal people are not interested in them. We need to be normal to have soccer players, artists, singers. These kinds of people don’t visit Palestine. We want them.”
Meanwhile the children of Gaza had to make do with watching Ronaldo on television. One fan, a child from the Shabbura refugee camp, near Rafah at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, wrote to Ronaldo, complaining of the Israeli-imposed siege on Gaza, which prevented him from travelling to the West Bank to see him.
According to the Palestinian news agency (Wafa) which published the letter, the child, Hamad al Nairab, invited Ronaldo to visit Rafah. “My friends and I love you, and hope to see you for a few seconds. I always wanted to be a famous football player like you.
“On 19 May 2004, my friends and I were participating in a peaceful march and an Israeli helicopter hit us with missiles. A lot of my friends were killed and others wounded. On that day, I lost my leg and my dreams.”
After spending a few relatively peaceful hours in Ramallah, Ronaldo travelled to Hirzliya, north of Tel Aviv, at the invitation of the Peres Centre for Peace, named after veteran Israeli leader Shimon Peres. “I hope there will be peace, and want to do something for peace in the region and the world,” Ronaldo said.
However, as soon as the football star uttered these words, hundreds of fans engulfed him, prompting his body guards and Israeli police to smuggle him out of the stadium. Ronaldo appeared shocked and embarrassed. Even Peres, who accompanied him, seemed confused.
In December last year, actor Angelina Jolie, also a UN goodwill amabassador, brought her son to visit Palestinian orphans living in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Khalid Amayreh is a journalist based in the occupied West Bank. This article was originally published by aljazeera.net and reprinted on EI with permission.