The death of former Palestinian footballer Ahed Zaqqut, who was killed by an Israeli missile strike on his home in Gaza earlier this month, has drawn attention to an insidious tactic used by the Israeli military. As The National reported yesterday, Zaqqut, 49, had a stellar career as a midfielder and was a local hero who was inspiring a younger generation as a coach. Like so many of the people who have died in Gaza, he had no known association with Hamas.
It may be that Zaqqut’s death was an unintended consequence, but there is evidence that the Israelis have a deliberate policy of targetting sportspeople and other high-profile Gazans. There is certainly nothing accidental about shooting footballers in the feet – and that is what happened in January this year when Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd Al Raouf Halabiya, 17, were trying to cross a checkpoint in the West Bank on their way home from a training session. After being shot repeatedly by soldiers, they were mauled by dogs and then beaten.
In 2009, Mahmoud Sarsak, a 14-year-old boy who was the youngest-ever player in the Palestine League, was arrested without charge and tortured in prison for three years. Many Palestinians suspect he was held simply because Israel was afraid that he would become a sporting hero for his people. Israel has also barred many Palestinian players from travelling to tournaments abroad and from crossing from Gaza to the West Bank.
A report last year on Israeli violations of Palestinian football found hundreds of instances in just five years: from destroying football clubs to stopping international sports teams from going to Palestine. So serious have the violations been that, just before the World Cup this year, Fifa decided to form a committee to monitor Israeli actions against Palestinian sports.
For a people without a recognised country, football – which was played in the former British mandate decades before the creation of Israel – is a galvanising game. It provides people with an opportunity to bond, and entertainment to help them escape from the misery of living in the open-air prison known as Gaza. To target football players is not just an attack on their individual dreams, it is an assault on the aspirations of all Palestinians.
The game plan for Israel is not just to defeat Palestinians, but to crush their spirit. To their great credit, they have not succumbed.