GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinian fans of the wildly popular football club Barcelona defiantly turned out Sunday evening to cheer it on against Real Madrid, ignoring a call by their Islamic militant rulers and local activists for a boycott after the team accidently waded into Mideast politics by inviting a former Israeli captive to the archrivals’ Clasico showdown.
Some Palestinians cried foul after Barcelona gave a complimentary ticket to Gilad Schalit to attend Sunday’s match in Camp Nou, the team’s home stadium. Schalit was seized by militants loyal to Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement in 2006 and exchanged for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last year, many of whom were involved in deadly attacks.
In cheering on Barcelona despite the invitation, fans revealed the limits of a Palestinian boycott movement seeking to isolate Israel — and revealed the extent of Palestinian adoration for Barcelona, particularly in the coastal sliver of the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas, where there are few outlets for entertainment.
Palestinian children wear imitation Barcelona blue-and-red jerseys, particularly of their legendary player, Leo Messi. Any Clasico game — where Barcelona plays against Real Madrid — ensures a night of wild cheering, honking cars, flag waving and packed cafes.
“We are proud to be Barcelona fans,” said Ahmad Mousa, 22. He waited in a Gaza coffee shop to watch the game, wearing the team’s red-and-blue tee-shirt, carrying a large flag and flanked by four friends. Mousa said he was proudly Palestinian, but boycotting the game served no purpose.
“Don’t stay home and shout some slogans. Go and stand before the world waving the Palestinian flag,” he said.
Palestinian activists said Barcelona took sides in the Mideast conflict by inviting Schalit.
They demanded the team rescind the invitation and asked fans to stay home. Gaza’s Hamas rulers said they wouldn’t allow broadcasts of Barcelona matches nor allow papers to report them. But Hamas ultimately did not stop cafes from broadcasting the match on Sunday.
To try to smooth over the dispute, Barcelona also invited to the game the president of the Palestinian football union, the ambassador to Spain and footballer Mahmoud Sarsak, once held for year years in an Israeli jail without charge until he was released this year after waging a 90-day hunger strike.
Sarsak declined, saying he didn’t want to be seen as normalizing relations with Israel by attending a game alongside a soldier.
Other fans said they felt embarrassed to cheer on Barcelona, saying it felt like they were supporting a pro-Israel team.
“I stopped loving them,” said Kadoura Fares, head of a Palestinian advocacy group for prisoners.
A Barcelona official refused comment.
But in Gaza, there was little sense of a boycott. Cafes broadcast the game on large-screen televisions, where fans typically watch while smoking water pipes. Club flags decorated the entrance of restaurants. The team’s logo was stuck on dozens of cars on a Gaza main street.
There was no drop in sales of Barcelona products in the “Prince of Sports” shop in Gaza City, said salesman Rami Ali, 22.
Perhaps those taking the most pleasure in the scene were the territory’s minority Real Madrid fans.
“I came to watch the game, and watch the scandal of having Schalit among Barcelona fans,” said Samir Taha, a 30-year-old a bookstore owner. “God willing, we shall defeat them today.”
The game ended in a 2-2 draw.