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After FIFA complaint, Israel lets Gaza soccer players travel to championship game in Hebron

The Palestine Cup final, which was originally scheduled to take place Saturday, was delayed due to an Israeli-imposed travel ban on 11 players from Gaza. Petition to boot Israeli settlement teams collects 150,000 signatures.

By Yoni Mendel

Soccer protest in Gaza (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Palestinians hold a soccer-themed protest near Gaza’s border with Israel. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Seventy-two hours after Israel refused to allow 11 Palestinian soccer players travel from Gaza to the West Bank to participate in the Palestine Cup, Israeli authorities reversed a travel ban on six of the players on Monday.

The approval, which followed a Palestinian complaint to FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, paves the way for the final game to go forward on Tuesday.

The game was originally scheduled to take place on Saturday, but was delayed due to an Israeli-imposed travel ban on 11 players from Shabab Khan Younis in Gaza. The Shin Bet, at the time, said it had “severe negative security background” on the banned players.

Last year as well, Israel did not allow players from a different Gaza-based team to travel to Hebron for the national championship game. Then, as now, Israel approved the permits only in the wake of international pressure from FIFA.

In a nearly identical incident last week, Israel prevented seven Palestinian players from Hebron-based Ahly al-Khalil from entering the Gaza Strip to play Shabab Khan Younis, citing the fact that they hold Israeli ID cards. Israeli military authorities also delayed the rest of Ahly al-Khalil for 12 hours at the Erez Border crossing.

Despite having only 11 players available due to Israeli restrictions, Ahly al-Khalil won that match.

Hebron’s Ahly al-Khalil plays Gaza-based Shejaiya in the 2015 Palestine Cup, held in Hebron, West Bank, August 14, 2015. Hebron won the title. (Flash90)

Hebron’s Ahly al-Khalil plays Gaza-based Shejaiya in the 2015 Palestine Cup, held in Hebron, West Bank, August 14, 2015. Hebron won the title. (Flash90)

The Palestinian Football Association withdrew a motion to expel Israel from FIFA last year as part of a compromise that was meant to establish a committee to ensure freedom of movement for Palestinian soccer players.

Palestinian sports officials will surely raise the events of recent days with FIFA. What is not clear is whether they will attempt to revive efforts to have Israel expelled from the international sports body.

An online petition to FIFA that had collected nearly 150,000 signatures by Monday demanded that the international soccer organization apply its bylaws to Israeli soccer clubs operating in the occupied West Bank.

“If the Israeli Football Association doesn’t comply it must lose its membership with FIFA, as has been the case with other federations that have refused to accept FIFA’s fair play rules,” the petition reads.

The Israeli army controls the only regularly operating border crossing in and out of the Gaza Strip, in addition to claiming complete control over its airspace, maritime zones, population registry, and all decisions regarding who and what may enter and exit the blockaded territory.

The Palestinians and the entire international community consider the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be parts of the same territory despite not actually being territorially contiguous. Every peace plan tabled in recent decades has included some mechanism to ensure free Palestinian movement between the two territories.

Yoni Mendel is the projects manager of the Mediterranean Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and co-editor of the book review section of the Journal of Levantine Studies (JLS). A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.

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