Why can’t Israel let us play football in peace?

Destruction in Gaza on the evening when Israel launched a major attack during May 2021. 

Bashar Taleb APA images

I seldom notice joy and excitement in the eyes of Gaza’s people. So I savored the all-too-brief moment when I felt everyone around me shared those emotions.

It was an evening in April this year. The location was the grounds where Shabab Jabalia – a youth football team – plays.

For local people, it was an important game, the final in a competition.

Nerves were running high and almost everyone watching the match had a cigarette between their lips. Each time someone scored a goal or came close to scoring, the supporters of his team would jump up and down.

I sat alone in a corner observing.

It was a scene of pure beauty.

Yet the beauty was fragile. During the second half, the noise of cheering and chanting was replaced with the noise of an explosion.

Israel had carried out an airstrike against Gaza.

Immediately the mood changed. Joy gave way to apprehension.

Most of the people who had been watching the match tried to get news of what had happened.

Some looked constantly at the screens on their mobile phones. Others left the grounds and went home to check that their families were safe.

I was among the few who stayed to see the rest of the game.

Interrupted by aggression

It was not the first time that I have witnessed a football match being interrupted by Israeli aggression.

On the early evening of 10 May 2021, I was sitting in the same corner at Shabab Jabalia’s grounds.

As the match got underway, the atmosphere was very similar to the one I enjoyed last month.

The game being played was also the final of a local competition and the supporters of the two rival teams were not shy about displaying their enthusiasm.

Israel, though, would not allow the match to be played in its entirety.

During the match, Israel launched an attack against Gaza. All of the spectators left the grounds within a few minutes.

I immediately sensed that the attack would be huge. It gives me no satisfaction to say that I was right.

The attack lasted for a full 11 days.

More than 250 Palestinians were killed in that horrific period. And there is no doubt that every one of them left behind precious memories.

The attack underscored how Israel will not allow people in Gaza lead the kind of lives that are considered normal around the world. Israel will not even allow us to enjoy football in peace.

Although their names have never been heard by most people in the world, some victims of the May 2021 attack were talented football players.

Dazzling ability

My friend Muath al-Zaanin was one of them.

Muath was a player with the Jabalia Services club.

There were two characteristics that Muath’s fans admired.

First, he ran incredibly fast.

Second, he never seemed to get tired. It was like he had three lungs.

Come to think of it, there is a third characteristic that I associated with Muath: silence.

He did not speak much either on the pitch or off it.

Muath al-Zaanin (via Facebook)

I am a football coach and Muath was exactly the kind of versatile player that coaches appreciate. You could draw up any game plan – defensive or offensive – around him.

His dazzling ability should not distract from the fact that Muath had a hard life.

He was paid only around $100 a month by his football club. As that was not enough to provide for his family, Muath – who was married with two children – also worked as a peddler.

After training sessions, he would rush home to the Beit Hanoun area of Gaza. Then he would go out again with his cart, from which he sold clothes.

His short life ended on 16 May 2021.

On that day, Muath was at home in the Beit Hanoun area of Gaza. Some friends had joined him there.

He and two other young men were killed when Israel fired a missile at his home. Muath was 27.

He and the two others killed were resistance fighters with Islamic Jihad.

Muath was not the first person in his family to be killed by Israel.

In May 2003, his brother Muhammad was killed when Israel’s military raided Beit Hanoun. Muhammad was only 15.

Their brother Khalil is preparing a photographic tribute to honor Muhammad and Muath.

“Muath is alive in our hearts,” Khalil said. “With this picture, we will mark the anniversary of his martyrdom.”

Smiling defender

Two days before Muath was killed, I lost Mahmoud al-Madhoun, another friend of mine.

Mahmoud, too, was a nifty football player. We both played on a team from the area neighboring al-Taqwa mosque in the Beit Lahiya area of northern Gaza.

Mahmoud was a very consistent defender. He read his opponents well and rarely made mistakes.

He was always smiling and had bundles of self-confidence. His style reminded me of the Dutch player Virgil van Dijk.

Mahmoud was hit in the head with shrapnel when Israel attacked the area beside his home in the Beit Lahiya area on 12 May last year.

Approximately 48 hours later, al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City confirmed that he had died from his wounds. He was aged 30.

During the last few days of his life, his wife Alaa gave birth to a baby boy. The new child – the couple’s third – has been named Mahmoud.

“I feel like I am in a nightmare,” said Alaa. “We were so happy to have a new baby. And now I cannot believe that Mahmoud will never come back to us. I still cannot accept that he was killed.”

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist based in Gaza.