Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- Despite the seriousness that is apparent on their faces, the players were exchanging jokes while training amidst the roaring sound of explosions as the Israeli army planes bombed various locations in the city. The blasts resounded throughout the southern region of the Gaza Strip but it was as though the explosions were reverberating elsewhere.
The Rafah Services Club team was busy with the preparations for the final game, which will determine the winners of the Palestinian Champions League. The aforementioned team will be competing against Ittihad al Shajaaeya (United Courage) in the final match.
Rafah Services Club Director, Darwish al Houli is determined to follow up on the course of the team’s training. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that despite the ‘surreal’ reality that reigns over Gaza and which defies all logic, life must prevail, and that “undoubtedly, Palestinian sports must continue [to be practiced] despite the huge obstacles in the way,” he said.
He added, “It is too easy for us to find so many excuses because of the impossible reality that we live. We could blame all our shortcomings on the occupation, or the slip in security, or the incredibly deteriorating economic conditions. Add to that the crushed morale of the Palestinian audience, which is no longer enthusiastic about sports activities because of the practices it is subjected to.”
The match ahead of the Rafah Service’s Club will conclude the ‘strangest’ sports league in the world, according to Jamal Abu Hashish, the media spokesman for the Palestinian Football Federation. Abu Hashish explains that the aforementioned league started at the beginning of 2005 and although it was expected to end after six months at the most, because it was a Qualification League; it ended up lasting much longer. Despite the leagues only aim being to determine each participating team’s position as premiere division, first, second and third division, the process has stretched to over two years.
When asked about the reasons for this huge delay, Abu Hashish said that the league commenced before the implementation of the disengagement plan, which meant that the Israeli army had occupied a larger portion of the Gaza Strip. He explained that there were many military roadblocks on the main streets, which made it impossible for the sports teams to move from one location to another. The matches were played between the neighboring teams, while other matches against teams that were located in other areas were postponed, he said. This continued until the disengagement plan was put into action in September 2005 only to come to a screeching halt again after public interest shifted towards the dominating new situation.
It was at the beginning of 2006, said Abu Hashish, that the league was resumed, however due to the impending legislative elections at the time and the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and what ensued of Israeli military operations executed in the heart of Gaza, the league was, once again, put on hold.
Palestinian sports commentator Ibrahim Abu Shaar points out that there is another dimension that greatly impacts the advancement of Palestinian sports, including resuming the league, namely the security problems that have cast a dark shadow over Gaza. He added that as a result it has become nearly impossible for a match to end in peace sometimes.
Abu Shaar disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the slip in security has directly affected the league since the absence of a legislative authority has resulted in many clubs postponing prospective matches. A glaring example of the Israeli oppression and violence and the security problems that Gaza faces is the fact that the league’s final trophy match will be held without an audience.
Darwish al Houli revealed that he had reached an understanding with the Ittihad al Shajaaeya club management, which will be competing against his club’s team in this match, which states that due to the absence of guarantees that the match will commence and end in peace and since there is no security force capable of regulating it – then it will have to take place without an audience. The match will be played on neutral ground; the ‘Muhammad al-Durrah’ stadium in Deir al Balah city in central Gaza. The audience will be limited to the management of both teams, their representatives, the media and representatives from the Ministry of Youth and Sport.
And thus ends the league that lasted over two years, in a match that is harsh and unfortunate, “but still remains a thousand times better than if the match were to end in an inappropriate manner,” says al Houli.
However, the real challenge facing Palestinian sports is the deteriorating economic conditions, which have been exacerbated in an unprecedented way after the embargo was imposed following the election of Hamas to power.
The sports clubs have no budgets, says Abu Hashish, and the Ministry of Youth and Sport cannot provide anything because of the embargo, this is without mentioning the companies that have stopped providing financial sponsorship because of the difficult economic conditions. He added that the lack of an infrastructure for Palestinian sports also contributes towards this absence of financial resources.
Abu Hasish revealed that because of the shortage of property owned by clubs, 12 clubs share the same grounds, which is a result of the official institutions’ inability to invest in such infrastructural requirements that could serve Palestinian sports. He said that with the exception of US $1 million that FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) pays the Palestinian Football Federation every four years, not a single penny is invested to support Palestinian sports.
But the Israeli targeting of Palestinian football fields still forms one of the biggest challenges that hinders the national development of sports. Last year, Israeli F-16 fighter planes bombed Yarmuk Stadium, the main sports stadium in Gaza, with bombs that weighed a ton each, which caused a great amount of damage.
Ahmed Muhsin, the director of the Minister of Youth and Sports’ chamber painted a bleak picture. He spoke of the economic blockade and the hardships facing sports development in the Palestinian territories. “Capital is one of the prerequisites for the success of sport. Without it, it is impossible to claim that these activities are being practiced,” said Muhsin.
He added that when Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had occupied the post of Minister of Youth and Sports in the former cabinet he had exerted huge efforts to allocate a budget for the sports clubs and playing grounds, and that he had indeed succeeded in acquiring some funds which he used as incentives for players. He granted awards to the winning teams and the players who had displayed outstanding performance. Muhsin believes that Haniyeh’s achievement can be represented in the agreement which he forged with the Qatari government to build a sports city in central Gaza, indicating that the area would span over approximately 91 Feddans [1 Feddan is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters]. The plot of land is what was formerly known as the Netzarim settlement in Gaza’s south.
Muhsin stated that the current minister, Basim Naim, has worked to propel the project further and that he had been in contact with Arab officials to resume agreements regarding transferring Palestinian players to Arab clubs. He has also sought consultation in the field of sports activities so as to advance Palestinian sports up to international standards, in addition to securing some funding from Arab countries to sponsor Palestinian youth activities. He pointed out that over 65 percent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are under the age of 30, which indicates the weight of the burden to be shouldered by the Ministry – if there can be resources that allow for that.
However, the problems facing the Palestinian national [football] team are much more complicated and trying than what may appear to be the case. The team consists of players from the Gaza Strip, West Bank and the al Shatat (Diaspora formed teams). Since there is a strict separation between the West Bank and Gaza, which makes communication impossible, the team’s management is obliged to organize training camps outside of the Palestinian borders, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, and sometimes in Syria and Qatar. The Football federations in the hosting countries cover the costs of travel and accommodation, as well as the expenses of the players and management. Before any match is played by the national team, the players in Gaza head to Egypt, while the players in the West Bank go to Egypt via Syria. As for the al Shatat players, they arrive from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait.
The wretched conditions that the Palestinian national football team and its management live under and the lack of financial resources that would enable it to participate in local, regional and international championships prevents it from playing any games – even if only to affirm its existence. For example, the team will set off to Egypt in the next few days to start a training camp in preparation for the forthcoming Asian Nations Cup – but Abu Hashish has no illusions. The group that the Palestinian team will be playing in includes Iran and Iraq, which are strong teams and thus he believes the chances of huge achievements are slim, however he upholds that participating to reaffirm Palestinian national existence is critical and must prevail.
Palestinian sports teams in Gaza are divided into three groups: The first is established and financially backed by the UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East); they are called the ‘services’ clubs. UNRWA has since stopped sponsoring them.
There are other clubs that have been established through local initiatives and local government and municipalities’ institutions. The third type of clubs that exists is those associated with civil institutions that are linked to the Hamas movement. There is no contention that Hamas possesses the largest number of sports teams. The Mujama al Islami team established by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and the Jamaeya al Islamia club team included Ismail Haniyeh as one of its players until he later became its manager.
Although the aforementioned two teams have only appeared recently on the scene in Gaza, they have nonetheless been winning numerous local championships and have represented Palestine in some championships around the Arab world. Another team is al Masajid (the mosques), as most mosques in Gaza have sports teams. The Masajid teams were popular because they would organize annual matches, however the present economic and security conditions no longer allow for these activities to resume. Another major obstacle comes after the Israeli coining of the phrase “the infrastructure of terrorism” in which they include the sports and activities clubs affiliated to Hamas, among other things.
Politics and Sports: Information at a Glance
• 343: The total number of sports clubs, 300 in the West Bank and 43 in Gaza, however most clubs in the West Bank are small and lack modern amenities.
• 29: The total number of stadiums; 7 in Gaza and 22 in the West Bank. The largest is Yarmuk Stadium in Gaza.
• Political affiliations: Most of the ‘services’ clubs that were established by the UNRWA, approximately 8 in total, are affiliated to Fatah. These teams have boycotted the current Minister of Youth and Sports, Basim Naim as a result. Some clubs are linked to the security apparatuses; while other clubs represent the Hamas civil and charity organizations.
• 120: The total number of teams participating in the Palestinian Champions League from both Gaza and the West Bank. 32 teams are participating in the premiere division; 16 from Gaza and 16 from the West Bank.
• The players do not practice professionally and do not receive salaries or incentives. They receive a small sum of ‘pocket money’ when traveling to compete in Arab or international championships.
• The only financial backing received is US $1 million, which FIFA pays the Palestinian Football Federation every four years, in addition to some unspecified financial support from Arab countries.