Palestinian territories come together in rare football match
Al-Ahly, the top team in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, had travelled to the Gaza Strip to face off with the coastal enclave’s champion Shejaia – the first such visit since the eruption in 2000 of a Palestinian revolt against Israel.
The game ended in a goal-less draw, a result perhaps welcome to some amid efforts to heal the internal rifts from a 2007 civil war between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s long-dominant Fatah faction and rival Hamas Islamists.
“No matter who wins, Palestine wins,” said Akram Hajjaj, one of Shejaia’s managers.
Abbas and Hamas formed a unity government last year but divisions remain. Hamas retains de facto control of Gaza, where last year it fought a war with Israel that sowed devastation in crowded districts such as Shejaia. The U.S.-backed Abbas holds sway in the West Bank, coordinating security and conducting stop-start peace negotiations with Israel.
“Today represents the unity of land, the unity of people. Today Palestinian sport defeated the Israeli occupier,” said Abdel-Salem Haniyeh of the Palestinian Higher Council of Sport.
Some 7,000 fans packed Gaza’s Yarmouk stadium, which was decked with Palestinian national flags. More than 1,000 security men from the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza kept order.
The teams will compete again for the Palestine Cup on Sunday in the West Bank city of Hebron, and the winners will play in the next Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.
Jibril Al-Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Football Federation, said he planned to form a joint league for Gaza and the West Bank.
“From day one, I made clear that sport has nothing to do with division,” Rajoub told Reuters.
At the annual FIFA Congress in May, Palestine threatened to call for a vote for Israel’s suspension from world football but it dropped its motion at the last minute and FIFA agreed to send observers to monitor the situation.
The PFA has complained that Israel restricts the movement of players and officials to and from the Palestinian territories. The teams moving between the territories for Thursday’s and next week’s games did so with Israeli permission.
Al-Ahly, which has an Italian coach, Stefan Cusin, appeared more vigorous on Tuesday. Though disadvantaged by a lack of sports kit, a shortage typical in a Gaza Strip under Israeli and Egyptian embargoes, Shejaia fended off the visiting team.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Andrew Roche)