Palestine's football team brings 90 minutes of hope and glory to war-ravaged Gaza

First win in Asia Cup was welcome news for many after 110 days of continuous bombardment

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The Palestine football team's historic win against Hong Kong at the Asian Cup gave Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza a 90-minute break from the cycle of violence and death in the besieged enclave.

People struggled to tune in because of internet cuts that became more frequent by the day four months into the war with Israel, but some managed to get a glimpse of their national team making it to the knockout stage in Doha, for the first time.

Asaad Al-Khateeb, 33, who is hosting other displaced families at his home in Rafah on the border with Egypt, told The National that he watched parts of the game with others on his phone despite not having a stable internet connection.

"We hope we can watch the next victory in a more peaceful atmosphere away from the sound of bombing and shelling," Mr Al-Khateeb said.

Amjad Murtaja, 42, was not as lucky.

The avid football fan, who was displaced from northern Gaza city to Khan Younis in the south, where he and his family are seeking shelter at a local college campus with Israeli tanks surrounding them, lamented not being able to watch the match.

"I feel happy that the Palestinian team improved themselves and brought pride to the name of our country," he told The National, hoping that he would be able to watch the next game.

More than 25,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli fire in Gaza and nearly two million people have been displaced since the war began on October 7 after the Hamas attacks.

Across Gaza, food and water supplies are running perilously low as a lack of fuel means communications and essential services such as water desalination are progressively failing, the United Nations said.

For Palestinian sports journalist Alaa Shammali, who was supposed to be in Qatar for the match but is trapped in Gaza, the national team's win sends a message to the world that the people of Palestine are still brimming with life despite the war. "The Palestinian team brings together men from around the country – including Gaza – who have family here in the strip. This pain brought focus to the players, and helped them get to the place they are in the tournament," he told The National.

In the stadium in Qatar, thousands of fans waved the Palestinian flag and chanted for their team as it marked its first win in any of its Asia Cup appearances.

Gaza-born footballer Mohammad Saleh burst into tears as the referee blew the final whistle and then collapsed on the pitch before standing up again to point to the number 110 written on his arm, marking the days since the beginning of Israel's war.

Speaking to Qatari media after the match, Saleh said he had lost family and friends in the war.

"I played this match for our people in Gaza and the souls of the martyrs," he said, adding that he wanted to show the world that Palestinians are a people who "love life and want to bring glory to their country".

He said he "shed tears after every goal", and hoped that his family was watching this historic achievement.

Updated: January 24, 2024, 2:24 PM