Moshe Harush
November 18, 2010 - 1:00am

The main boulevard in Hebron, Ein Sara, was decked out in celebration yesterday, not only because of the Holiday of the Sacrifice being marked but a soccer fest between the Palestinian national team and an all-star Druze squad from the Golan Heights.

Billboards with the images of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the father of the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat, were proudly displayed. The smells of scorched meat wafted in the air, beckoning to the masses.

The Palestinian street swelled into the gates of the local Hussein Abu Ali stadium from the late afternoon hours. Dozens of locals stormed the ticket counters to get a seat at the most unusual event. Buses with Palestinian and Syrian flags arrived, from which alit Druze leaders from the Golan, who disappeared for an official reception with municipal heads together with the Golan soccer squad.

Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian soccer association and the authority's Olympic committee, joined in the festivities opened by mayor Haled Osaily.

Missing from the Golan team was Kiryat Shmona striker Wiyam Amashe, who was already committed to Israel's international friendly with Iceland, but not for lack of trying. "He would have received a king's welcome here," said Sadi Rajoub, the director of the PA's Communication's Ministry. "I wish he would have come. It would have been a great honor for us to host someone of his level."

Said Abu Taher, a coach in the local league, predicted the Palestinian team would score four goals because the Golan delegation lacked professionals. "If they would have had Wiyam Amashe, they might be able to do something here," he predicted.

Abu Taher was close - the Palestinians scored six times. But victory belonged to everybody, one of the highlights of Palestinian soccer.

The soccer association was established 15 years ago, with long interruptions in between due to the security situation at various times. Jibril Rajoub was appointed over two years ago as chairman with the goal of introducing professional elements into Palestinian soccer.

Last summer, the league - which numbers 12 West Bank-based teams - took another important step forward with the establishment of a budget control committee and a division to supervise player contracts. "It's just like the Israeli league or any other in the world," says Deeb Haitam, a member of the Palestinian soccer squad and defender for Hilal Quds. Haitam, who was born in the Druze village of Majdal Krum, played with 'A' league club Maccabi Tamra until two years ago. There are several other players and coaches in the local league with Israeli identity cards.

Haitam, a physical education instructor in his village, at first was concerned about accepting the offer from Hilal. "I thought they'd give me trouble," he recalls. "I was afraid the would kick me out of the Education Ministry. I didn't want to go at first, but after a few practices and games I saw everything was alright, and I've been here since then."

Small soccer fields dotting Hebron attest to the growing popularity of the sport among the locals. Kids set up makeshift goals in their courtyards and fill up the neighborhood pitches on school holidays. "My dream is to play on the national squad," says Obeida Salham, 19, after revealing he is a Maccabi Haifa fan. "I'm a Barcelona fan and want to go to Spain, but Palestinian soccer is under siege, and its hard to progress in it."

Showing the youth another way to live

Mayor Osaily says that with over 60 percent of the Palestinian population under the age of 18, "through sport and soccer we can give them a normal way of life, to get them attached to culture and show them another way to live." He says that without soccer, the youth would be in the streets, mixed up in crime, drugs and radical organizations. "The Palestinian team today is a source of national pride," he says. "It's just a shame Israeli policy makes things harder for us."

The Palestinian team, preparing in nearby Bethlehem, had problems of its own. Two of its stars, defender Abdelatif Bahdari and captain Ahmed Keshkesh, both play in Jordan and have not been back for over a year for fear they won't get a travel permit to return to Jordan. And the players from Gaza have no prayer of getting a permit to come to the West Bank, says Sadi Rajoub of the Communications Ministry.

The Golan squad was invited at the last minute, after the Gambian national team canceled its date with the Palestinians due to pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Palestinians say. "Before that," he says, "The Central Republic of Africa canceled. We settled everything with them, and suddenly they inform us they are canceling because Israel is pressuring them to cancel. These teams were afraid to mess with the Israelis because they have business and security interests with them." He says he dearly wants to promote soccer but Israeli policymakers do their utmost to prevent this from happening.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry did not comment before press time.

Palestinian head coach Abed Nasser says the team is not fully professional but is headed in the right direction. "A lot of work and patience is needed, mostly to invest in developing the young players," he says. "The obstacles we face don't help. We have five Gazans on the team who have not returned to Gaza in a long time because the moment they do they won't be able to come back here."

Jibril Rajoub says he met Ehud Barak at an affair and presented to him the association's complaints. "He said he would check into it and help," he says. "The problem with you all is that promises don't translate onto the field." He added he has already complained to UEFA and FIFA heads. "At the next FIFA conference, I'm going to demand that a price be exacted from Israeli soccer if they don't give our players freedom of movement. There won't be a game between Palestine and Israel until there's a Palestinian state. I won't let that happen. There's no chance of this kind of meeting as long as we are under occupation."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017