A footballing test for Israel

The UAE-Palestine match is a chance for Tel Aviv to demonstrate it can play ball

Palestinian players in Gaza warm up as they run laps around their club's field in the early evening in Gaza City. (Photo by Heidi Levine for The National).
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Politics and sport should be kept separate. But the Israelis clearly didn’t get that memo. Next week, Palestine’s football team will make history when it takes on the UAE in a World Cup qualifier – in the West Bank itself.

Although Palestine’s team has played World Cup qualifiers before, it has never played on home soil. That they will play in the West Bank represents a significant victory in the international movement to pressure Israel over its occupation.

For years, Israel has overtly and covertly hindered the development of Palestinian football. When, ahead of the 2006 World Cup, Palestine topped its qualifying group, Israel refused to allow most of the team members to travel. Denial of travel permits – due to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – has been used repeatedly to scupper the team’s chances.

Such overt interference is coupled with the general horrors of the occupation. Football stadiums have been repeatedly bombed by Israel, players have been arrested and held without charge or trial, others have been shot or killed simply because they were Palestinian. In Gaza, the years-long blockade means sports people can’t access the right type of food or the latest training facilities. So much for keeping politics and sport separate.

It was for all of those reasons that the international campaign to kick Israel out of Fifa began and rapidly gained worldwide traction. Indeed, this match would not have come about without it. It was only in May, in a bid to head off his country’s expulsion, that Israel’s prime minister agreed to facilitate travel for Palestinian players and a new joint football committee was agreed.

This match, then, is a test for Israel’s commitment to adhere to international agreements. Will Israel allow all the Palestinian players in Gaza to travel? Will last-minute “security” reasons mean some are held up? Unsurprisingly, anyone who has followed Israel’s cruel and duplicitous policies towards the Palestinians will be expecting the worst. If it goes ahead without a hitch, the match will hopefully be the beginning of a more positive relationship between Israel and the outside world, where politics really is kept out of sport.