Mohammed Assadi, Ori Lewis
August 20, 2008 - 8:00pm

Palestinian soccer saw the start of a revival in the West Bank on Thursday with the relaunch of a league suspended after an uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in 2000.

Twenty-two teams across the territory will compete in a seven-month-long tournament, but teams from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip will not take part. Israel sharply restricts travel and trade to and from the coastal enclave.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's authority has been restricted to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip by force a year ago.

The revival of soccer in the West Bank follows the election in May of Jibril Rajoub as head of the Palestinian Football Association. A former senior Fatah security official, Rajoub wields influence in the territory and throughout the Arab world.

"This league will help to improve the level of our players and our teams," said Naser al-Abbasi, federation spokesman.

Matches will be held at 10 venues in cities across the West Bank. All teams are sponsored by leading Palestinian companies.

The inaugural match on Thursday between Hilal al-Quds from Arab East Jerusalem and nearby Silwan ended in a goalless draw.

Some 5,000 spectators watched a fast-paced but scrappy match played in searing evening heat in the ancient oasis town of Jericho close to the Dead Sea. It was preceded by a ceremony attended by senior Palestinian Authority officials.

None of the 22 clubs is fully professional. The opening season is intended to determine the strengths of the teams, which will eventually be divided into two divisions.

"This is a sign ... that Palestinians want to live normal lives. We are a fabric of sport, arts, culture ... we love life we are determined to achieve our goals," senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

"We expect that this league will be just like any other across the world and this is what we need," he added.

Abbasi said the Palestinian national team hoped to be able to host matches on home soil.

The team has played its official matches abroad because soccer's international body FIFA deems the Palestinian territories unsafe for international fixtures.


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