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The Palestinian soccer league: A microcosm of a national struggle

Originally founded in 1928, the Palestinian Football Association endured the many trials of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ahead of the conclusion of an eventful season, we look at one of the only national institutions that unifies the Palestinians these days.

By Yoni Mendel

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

The Palestinian soccer league is experiencing one of the most dramatic moments in its history. The current season has seen an unexpected turn of events, in which the likely champion was relegated to a secondary league a mere few days before the final.

Throughout the season, the Jerusalem club Hilal Alquds was at the top of charts of the Champions League, together with Al Zahiriyyah and Balata. But then they played Jabel Mukaber, a much weaker team, and the match turned out to be quite different from the walk in the park they had expected.

Jabel Mukaber, also known as the “Eagles,” scored a first goal in the 16th minute. Hilal Alquds stepped up a gear and tied 1:1 in the 80th minute. The Eagles refused to relent, and in the 88th minute scored a winning goal and did the unthinkable.

Hilal Alquds’ ouster from the champions league left two teams to face-off each other in the championship match on Friday: The Al Zahiriyyah “Gazelles,” from a village near Hebron, and the Balata “Nobles,” from the eponymous refugee camp near Nablus, that is populated mainly by refugees from the Jaffa area and their descendants and is one of the most densely populated places in the world.

The Eagles are likely to win, but the team is careful not to become overconfident. After Friday’s match, we’ll know which team will participate in the Asian Champions League later this year. But the entire soccer community in the West Bank will be able to boast a significant achievement: the end of a smoothly run season, against all odds.

This is further proof that the Palestinian league is alive and kicking. Soccer is the most popular sport in the region and in spite of everything, even behind the separation wall and the checkpoints, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank play every Saturday.

The Palestinian league, sponsored by the cellular phone giant “Jawal,” has been operating entirely professionally for the past four years, since the 2010/2011 season.

Because of the separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the league is divided into two separate realms: the upper Palestinian league in the West Bank and its counterpart in Gaza. Each league consists of 12 teams, which play home games and away games, 22 games per season in total. At the conclusion of the season the highest scoring team is pronounced a winner, and the two teams with the lowest ranking descend to the secondary league – of the West Bank or Gaza, respectively.

A Palestinian League for Jews only

Palestinian soccer is a microcosm of the changing face of the Palestinian society, on the one hand, and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the other.

The story goes back as far as 1928, when the leaders of the Zionist sports organization Maccabi applied for membership of the World Soccer Association, known as PFA-FIFA, which they believed would be another step on the road to international recognition.

The result was the birth of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and the launch of the local league. It was not particularly equitable: Nine Jewish clubs and one British club (that of the British police) participated in the champions league, while the Arab clubs played only in the secondary league.

Neither was the representation in the federation exceptionally fair: among the 15 members of the federation, 14 were Jewish and only one, the Jerusalemite referee Ibrahim Nusseibeh, was Arab. The inaugural meeting of the PFA, in 1928, was the first and last meeting which Nusseibeh attended.

In 1934, in keeping with the prevailing segragationist trends in the country, the Arab football clubs decided they refuse to continue being the fig leaf within the framework of an overwhelmingly Jewish league, and left. A parallel, exclusively Arab football league was established a year later.

While Jews were excluded, foreign players were allowed to participate. One of them was the imposing Australian goalkeeper Frank Bowles, who played for “Orthodox Jaffa” at the Al Batsa field (today’s Bloomfield Stadium). Ten years later, to counter the Zionist PFA, the Arab football league adopted a name of its own and was henceforth called PSA – the General Palestinian Sports Association.

The leagues operated separately, and in 1948, after the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the country, the Arab football league became inactive. In parallel, Israel changed the name of the Jewish league from PFA to Israel Football Association (ISA).

The Palestinian league came back to life only half a century later, shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accord. Only in 1998 did the name PFA reappear on the international sporting map and the Palestinian Football Association was officially registered with FIFA.

The newly resurrected Palestinian league was set up as semi-professional and consisted of two regions: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to its rules, at the end of every season the champion of the West Bank would play against the champion of the Gaza Strip, and the winner would be declared the national champion.

In the last championship that took place, in June 2000, the title went to the Gaza team “Young Rafah.” A few months after the end of that season, the second intifada broke out. Since then the Gaza teams have not played against the West Bank teams.

Playing under the occupation

The Intifada years were difficult and the seasons both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were disrupted many times. Reasons for that included limitations on mobility, encirclements, blockades, and damage to sports facilities. Soccer players participated in the Palestinian uprising, and many of them were either injured or imprisoned.

The league suffered from repeated interruptions. The 2005 season, for example, was interrupted four times and officially ended only in 2007, when a winner was declared (which was, as it happens, the Rafah team again).

Despite the restrictions, soccer did what it does best: bringing people together and giving them a sense of unity. This is twice as important in a society fighting for its independence. The very existence of the league, holding games in stadiums named after Faisal al Hussaini, Yasir Arafat or Muhammad A-Durah, seeing 11 players in the national colors playing against another national selection – they all contributed to the advancement of Palestinian nationhood in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to raising awareness for the Palestinian issue around the world.

The national team reflects the great diversity of the Palestinian people – those who live in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, or Israel; those who live in their ancestral homes, in refugee camps or in the diaspora. The national team enlists players from all these backgrounds.

When the national team go out to the field, it’s the only time that the Palestinians feel united – albeit for 90 minutes only.

This article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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    1. Whiplash

      Palestinian Achievements

      The article suggests that the smooth running of a football season is something to boast about. Similarly the flying of a large number of kites in Gaza was presented by 972mag as a big Palestinian achievement. 972mag avoids articles criticizing abject Palestinian failures, like Palestinian Unity, and writes these fluffy pieces of puffery to whitewash the terrible state of affairs in the West Bank and Gaza which are attributable to Palestinian actions.

      Palestinian Unity is an oxymoron. The PA sent a delegation to Gaza to look into the payment of Hamas employees in the strip. Hamas confined the members of the delegation to their hotel rooms and would not let Gazans talk to them. The PA and Hamas cannot coordinate the rebuilding efforts in Gaza. Hamas this week broke up a demonstration of 400 people in Gaza advocating for Palestinian Unity to rebuild Gaza. Hamas sent men into the demonstration to beat and arrest the protestors. The PA continues to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank. It has been reported that the PA supplied Israel with up to 30% of its targets in the last Gaza war. Lately the PA arrested and abused Hamas student leaders after Hamas won student elections in the West Bank. A university student in the West Bank got expelled for writing that Arafat was not a martyr. Her father got arrested by the PA for agreeing with her.

      This article talks about Balata as “the eponymous refugee camp near Nablus”. Balata was established in 1950 and in 1956 became a permanent settlement. UNWRA and the PA have left it to fester as a slum since then. The article does not mention that the PA has been carrying out military operations in Balata against criminal gangs involved in extortion, armed robbery, weapons smuggling and the drug trade, Hamas terrorists and Fatah supporters of Mohammed Dahlan. Almost every night gunfire rings through the camp. Armed gunmen from the camp blocked roads into Nablaus in April to demand the return of arrested gunmen. The PA has been carrying out similar operations in other parts of the West Bank.

      Maybe 972mag should attempt to delve into the Palestinian tragedy created by Palestinians for Palestinians instead of engaging in puffery about Palestinian football.

      Reply to Comment
      • Felix Reichert

        Since Palestinian unity was sabotaged by Bibi’s government, and it’s failing is therefore 99% the fault of Bibi (as every unbiased international expert outside of Israel will agree), why call it a Palestinian failure?

        Reply to Comment