Donald Macintyre: The decision to prevent the Palestinian Under-19 team from playing in Britain is a blow

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The Independent Online

It's an irony that the boys from the Palestinian Under-19 squad are intently watching a recording of last Wednesday's England friendly against Germany at Wembley on the Al-Jazeera Sports channel when we arrive. If they are feeling any sense of Schadenfreude at seeing the home team go down 2-1, team-mates Abdullah Sada, Muhammad al Ashram and Muhammed Asdudi are far too polite to show it. Yet they could be forgiven for uninhibitedly cheering the visitors' victory, given the disappointment they have just suffered at the hands of Her Majesty's Government.

This summer the 22 boys, who have beaten scores of other young club players to be selected for the Palestinian Under-19s - the majority of them from Gaza - have been training hard for what would have been, for them, the undisputed highlight of the past two years, among the toughest in Gaza's turbulent history.

By now, they should have started a three-week summer training camp based at Chester University, during which they were to have played matches against Chester FC, Tranmere Rovers and Blackburn Rovers youth teams. Yesterday, they were to have had their first match, with the Cheshire County FA youth team. It was to have been a friendly in three half-hour segments with rotating substitutions so everyone got a game. It would have been followed by a joint dinner for both squads in the evening.

Apart from being a real break from the stifling adversities of Gaza, in which there are a mere four, only-just-serviceable football grounds for 1.4 million people, it would have been the ideal way of preparing for the upcoming Under-19 Asia Cup qualifiers in Uzbekistan, as Khaled Abu Zahir, a Gaza sports journalist who was helping to organise the British tour, explains. "This was a good recognition of our team, but it was also a big advantage for us. There is nowhere in Gaza to have a training camp like this."

And finally, the boys had high hopes of going to at least one match in the English premiership, which they follow ardently - like many tens of thousands of other Gaza football fans - on TV.

But last week they were told by the British consulate's office in Gaza that all the players had been refused visas to enter the country. The players were flabbergasted. "Of course, we went crazy," says midfielder Asdudi, 18. "We were all frustrated. We were ready to travel. We were two months training for this. To go to Britain was a great opportunity for us."

Asdudi points out that the three-times-a-week training sessions were not even interrupted by the Hamas-Fatah conflict which culminated in more than 100 deaths in the five days of savage infighting in mid-June that left Hamas in control of the streets. The squad trains at the ground in Deir El Ballah in central Gaza - chosen to minimise the costs for players travelling from as far north as Beit Hanoun and as far south as Rafah - and on (swelteringly hot) afternoons because the ground, of course, has no lights. "Nothing stopped us training, not even the clashes," Asdudi says, "and a lot of us were doing exams at the time".

Even in a place inured to bad news, the British ban came as a shock. "We never expected problems like this," Mr Abu Zahir says. "But the thing we were not afraid of happened."

What caused even more consternation than the refusal were the reasons for it. While the letter sent to the players did not say so, British officials have said - to among others Rod Cox, the enterprising Chester businessman who runs Chester and Palestine Exchange and whose brainchild the visit was - that the grinding poverty of Gaza was one of the reasons for the ban. The calculation, according to one official, was that given the lack of opportunity in Gaza at present, and the fact that the players were themselves unmarried and therefore without wives and children to return to, they might be all the more tempted to remain in Britain when the training camp was over.

It's hard therefore to escape the conclusion that the squad were caught in a kind of geopolitical catch-22. Living in a territory whose poverty and record unemployment levels have been markedly increased by a boycott which Western countries - including Britain - have imposed on it since Hamas won the elections in January 2006, 22 boys who have determinedly striven to make something of their lives in the most difficult of circumstances now find that very poverty is a reason for restricting their freedom even further. Partly, it is just another aspect of the vicious circle in which Gaza - and especially Gaza youth - finds itself. But the boys, all of whom come from large, close-knit families, laugh spontaneously at the idea that they might abscond in Britain - even supposing they had the slightest idea how to build a life there.

Asdudi, an articulate, first-year accountancy student at Gaza City's secular Al Azhar university, has three brothers and five sisters, and whose dream is to be a PLO diplomat when he graduates, says: "It's ridiculous. Of course, I am going to come back. I am not going to run away from my homeland. We want to play football, to represent our country. Our goal is to bring Palestinians in the disapora back here, not to leave ourselves." Pointing out that many of his teammates are coming up for their last high school years and all important pre-university exams, Asdudi, who like his two friends has played for Palestinian national teams abroad before - and come back - adds: "Believe me, a lot of the players would have been taking their school books with them." Not to mention that all of them are now focused on representing their country - Israel permitting - in the Asia Cup in November.

Mr Abu Zahir, himself a former top club goalkeeper in Gaza, believes the ban misunderstands the culture of Gaza, including the closeness of family ties and the central importance vested in education by Palestinians. True, the boys are not yet married with their own children but they are deeply embedded in family life: parents siblings, cousins.

"You have to understand the tradition here," he says. Pointing out that the Palestinian Under-15s are currently on a tour of Norway, he says that no young or adult footballer travelling in a national team out of the country - and these are sides that because of the conflict usually have to play their home games in Qatar or Jordan - has ever failed to return. But perhaps the privations of the past two years have made it a more tempting prospect? "Tell me when Palestine or Gaza have ever been calm," he retorts.

On the face of it, what is remarkable about the boys is precisely their refusal to limit their ambitions despite the relentlessly unpromising conditions. "I have a future here," says full-back Sada, 17, pointing out that he wants to go on to university in Gaza after his upcoming last year in high school and - eventually - become a journalist. "Things are difficult now but God willing they will get better."

The refusal letter the squad received fully accepted that the camp's British organisers were "funding the trip in its entirety, including air fares, transport and other accommodation. Instead it raised what is arguably another catch 22 - the failure of the squad to provide "evidence" that Israel would allow it out of Gaza, and more importantly perhaps, back in. With no co-ordination between the de facto Hamas administration in Gaza and Israel that would have been, to put it mildly, difficult. But Mr Abu Zahir was optimistic that the emergency Palestinian government in Ramallah would have got permits from Israel for them to go in and out through the Erez crossing - as other Palestinians have been allowed to do in the past two months - and that it would have been all the easier if the British visas had been granted.

The British consulate in Jerusalem says that is "very sorry that it wasn't possible to give visas for what is a worthwhile cause," and adds that "in other circumstances" the football camp might well have qualified, as several other projects involving Palestinians have done, for help from the Foreign Office's "Engaging with the Islamic World" programme.

And indeed there is no sign that the consulate visa section, which operates under oversight from a regional HQ in Istanbul, was doing other than carefully operating within the detailed criteria laid down under the Rules in the 2003 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act. The question is rather whether the denial of a project like this suggests that the criteria are themselves too inflexible.

Mr Cox has no doubt that fostering projects like this is a way - among other things - of helping young Palestinians resist the lure of the armed militias. "The first idea was to improve Palestinian football," he says, "and help the Palestinians to present themselves as a state". A second was to bring them in contact "as a beacon" with mainly Muslim ethnic minority groups from Halifax and Liverpool to London "who are hostile to British foreign policy and feel disenfranchised". But a third was as a "reward" for the boys "working so hard" to rise above "tremendous pressures where the lack of hope and prospects make young people an easy target for any groups that want to make use of them."

Neither he nor Mr Abu Zahir have given up and both hope the tour can be reinstated. So does Abdullah Sada, who adds with a grin: "Tell them in Britain we promise to come back to Gaza." For that to happen, it will surely need the Government presided over by Raith Rovers' most famous fan to take a fresh and sympathetic look at the 2003 immigration rules as they apply to hard cases like the Palestinian Under-19s.

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