Isabel Kershner
Al-Ram Journal
October 28, 2009 - 12:00am

AL RAM, West Bank — Given the sheer exhilaration of the cheering, flag-waving, anthem-singing crowd packed into the soccer stadium in this otherwise drab West Bank town one afternoon this week, one could have been forgiven for thinking that an independent Palestinian state had just been born.

The Palestinians were playing the Jordanians. But more significant was that the women’s teams were playing, and for the Palestinian side it was the first international match played outdoors at home.

In front of a roaring crowd of at least 10,000 — about three-quarters women and a quarter equally enthusiastic men — the Palestinian players imparted a collective sense of achievement that had eluded their male compatriots for a long time.

With the peace process stalled and the Palestinian polity divided, the atmosphere is generally dour. Yet the game turned into an exuberant carnival of social liberation and national pride. The line between the dual quests for equality and statehood became increasingly blurred as the women chased the ball.

“In our culture,” said Rukayya Takrori, 50, the Palestinian team’s manager, “Palestinian women work side by side with the men in the fields and factories. They fight together, demonstrate together. Sometimes she takes the place of the man because he is in jail or is in the mountains, hiding.”

This game, she said, proved that “Palestinian women can do everything — even football.”

In Al Ram, just north of Jerusalem, signs of the Israeli occupation are never far away. The stadium sits half a block from Israel’s West Bank separation barrier. Though it is made up mostly of a fence, barbed wire and ditches, here in this urban environment it takes the form of a high, seemingly endless concrete wall.

To enter Jerusalem, West Bank residents must have special permits and pass through the nearby Kalandia checkpoint, a gray, prisonlike crossing of turnstiles and watchtowers. On Sunday, an Israeli security guard on duty there was stabbed and wounded by a young Palestinian woman.

But at Monday’s soccer game, Palestinians came together in a more peaceful endeavor for the cause. Though nonpartisan, the event clearly bore the stamp of the non-Islamist camp that holds sway in the West Bank.

Watching over the players on the field were huge posters of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. A couple of images of King Abdullah II of Jordan had been hastily added. Several dignitaries attended, including the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad.

FIFA, the international governing body of football, as soccer is known in most of the world, also sent a representative, in a salute to the Palestinian commitment to the sport.

Most of the women played bareheaded, though one Palestinian and a few of the Jordanians wore hijabs and tights under their shorts. The Palestinian team’s captain, Honey Thaljieh, 24, is a Christian from Bethlehem. The youngest player, Aya Khatib, 14, is a Muslim from a refugee camp near Jericho.

For such a varied cross section of Palestinian society, an unusual harmony prevailed. “There are no politics involved,” said Nur Nabulsi, 17, a member of the Palestinian team. “We play only for Palestine.”

The women have found an unlikely champion in Jibril Rajoub, the president of the Palestinian Football Association and a former chief of the once-feared Preventive Security apparatus in the West Bank.

In an interview in Ramallah days before the game, he said he had made a point throughout his career of promoting women. As a security chief, he said, he opened all the departments to female recruits. “I erased forever the idea of ladies being only secretaries,” he declared.

Soon after taking over the football association in May 2008, he created a women’s league. The result of Monday’s game was not important, he said, adding, “For me, it is a historic event.”

Mr. Rajoub wants the American soccer officials to send a team to play in the West Bank. He says it would be more effective in winning Palestinian hearts and minds than the repeated visits of George J. Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Middle East.

Sport, says Mr. Rajoub, is the “right way to show we are looking for peace and independence — we are peaceful ambassadors for our cause.”

Asked about playing the Israelis, Mr. Rajoub said it was “premature to talk that way.” The players on the field, he noted, could meet in very different circumstances at a checkpoint the next day.

As the game got under way, thousands more Palestinian men filled the rooftops overlooking the stadium and pressed against the fence. The first half ended ominously: 1-0 for Jordan, after the Palestinian side accidentally scored in its own goal.

The play was feisty on both sides. Two Jordanians were carried off on stretchers, and the Palestinians were granted two penalty kicks because of Jordanian fouls. It ended in a 2-2 tie.

The result was a bonus for the Palestinians, who had modest expectations. “It is good for us,” Ms. Takrori, the team manager, said after the game. “We did not believe we would score.”


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