Islamic Games: Palestine follows sporting roadmap to hope

Hosts take a troubled team to their hearts as the long journey reaps reward
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Shortly before the football team from Palestine played their first international match here in the Islamic Solidarity Games came the news that back home at a refugee camp in Gaza, three teenagers had been shot dead by Israeli troops. Apparently they, too, were playing football.

Shortly before the football team from Palestine played their first international match here in the Islamic Solidarity Games came the news that back home at a refugee camp in Gaza, three teenagers had been shot dead by Israeli troops. Apparently they, too, were playing football.

Inevitably, there was anger. "They talk about peace, but where is the evidence of this when they shoot three kids just for playing football?" asked Emad Okkeh, leader of the Palestine delegation. "Some of the players here know the families of those boys. How do you think they feel?"

Indeed, the Palestinians claim that few of their 104 competitors and officials have not been scarred physically or lost family members and friends in the years of attrition. After the match against Algeria at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium, which Palestine lost 3-0, Ahmad Jadallah, an award-winning Palestinian photographer, rolled up his trouser leg to show us where shrapnel from an Israeli tank shell had sliced into an artery two years ago while he was covering a raid on another refugee camp in his native Gaza. Although almost unconscious, he carried on photographing the dead and wounded around him before later being flown to London, where surgeons saved his limb.

While in London, following an exhibition of his work he addressed the House of Commons about Palestine's struggle for statehood. "Nowhere in the world is sport so much part of politics," he said. "Life has always been difficult for us, and now sport is, too."

For Ahmad, 35, covering the Islamic Games for Reuters is one of his less hazardous assignments. Like the situation in his homeland, sport for the Palestinians has become a story of both deprivation and defiance. From the moment they strode into the stadium in Mecca for the opening ceremony a week ago, some wearing the familiar black-and-white- check bandanas that symbolise their struggle, and several with a small photograph of the late Yasser Arafat pinned to their chests, the Palestinians have been acclaimed as heroes by the Saudi fans.

Palestine has 84 athletes here competing in 10 sports. They allege that the Israelis prevented some of their finest performers from leaving Gaza with no explanation. "What did they think - that they were going to blow up Saudi Arabia?" sighed Okkeh.

To get to Jeddah from Palestine they had to negotiate their own sporting roadmap, passing through three checkpoints and driving for seven hours to Cairo for their flight here. They say the Israeli border guards confiscated most of their sports gear because, according to Emad, "they did not want us to take anything with the word 'Palestine' on it. They don't want the world to see who we are and that we are united as a nation, even in sport. They want us to stay home, have no life, no sport, nothing."

Of course, this is just one side of the story, as is the version of the killing of the three boys, two aged 15, one 14, last week. According to the Israelis they were not just playing football, but had entered an unauthorised zone and were smuggling weapons across the border with Egypt. Whatever the truth, for the Palestinians it is simply more ammunition for their struggle, one in which they say sport now has a key role. "We are here to play sport but we are thinking all the time about what is happening at home," said Okkeh. "And this thinking is confused. We want to concentrate on playing sport, but how can we?"

At least the sports world has recognised Palestine as a state before much of the political world. Fifa, the IOC and IAAF have given their endorsement. Palestine has had token representation at the last three Olympics, but it is at these 54-nation Islamic Games that they have finally entered the global arena as a united force. Before arriving in Jeddah their hastily-assembled team had played only a couple of practice matches, against club sides in Egypt. Like their volleyball and basketball players, most had never met each other before. Three of Palestine's football squad were flown in from Chile, where they play for a team of Palestinian émigrés. Their captain, Saeb Jendeya ("the David Beckham of Palestine"), is with a Jordanian club. Another player, Adel Al-Farran, lives in a refugee camp.

But, they say, it is their dream one day to qualify for the World Cup. Here it has simply been their dream to win a game or even score a goal. In their second match they held out for 71 minutes against hosts Saudi Arabia before conceding the first of three goals. However, their solid defensive play in the first half was something of an embarrassment for the super-rich Saudis, supervised by their new national coach, the Argentinian Gabriel Calderon, one-time World Cup team-mate of Maradona.

The interval lasted 25 minutes because the Saudis were praying, no doubt for a goal. The following night the Palestinians' own prayers were answered when they scored their first goal, against Yemen, though they still lost 3-1.

There is no national stadium in Palestine, just two small grounds, one in Gaza and another in Nablus, on the West Bank. There is no league football, and there are no professional competitors in any sport. Okkeh, who is also the head of their basketball federation, owns a supermarket in Jerusalem. He says: "If we want to get a team together we have to go outside the borders and train. It costs a lot in time and money. Many times the Israeli government will not agree to let our players out. For four years it has been almost impossible to make contact with those in the West Bank even by telephone. This is not a way to win gold medals.

"More than 150 of our best sportsmen have been killed, including our most talented midfielder, many of them when walking home from training. Sometimes they [the Israelis] fire indiscriminately at anything that moves.

"After four years we are starting to play sport in schools, but if my son wants to take part I am now afraid that he, too, might be killed. The Israelis do not want the world to see that Arab kids play sport, they want them to be seen as just throwing stones."

Deprivation and defiance, yes. But determination, too. Palestine may have achieved one goal here but, says Emad: "What we pray for is a gold medal so that we can take it back to Palestine and say to our people, to the Israelis and the world, 'Here, this is what Palestine have won'."