A young Palestinian footballer shot in both knees by Israeli forces at a Gaza protest last month has called on Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi and his national teammates to boycott their upcoming match with Israel as the squad prepares for the World Cup in Russia.
The South Americans will travel to Israel on June 9 to play in the coastal city of Haifa, the team’s final warm-up match before their opening game in Moscow against Iceland a week later.
Mohammed Khalil, 23, said he was filming with his back to the Israeli border at the Great Return March to commemorate Land Day on March 30. He said that he was not posing a threat but he was shot.
Israeli forces have killed 102 Palestinians and wounded hundreds more after firing on protesters with live ammunition rounds, many targeting lower limbs, in seven successive weekly rallies since late March.
The footballer is now calling for Messi, the team’s captain, to disassociate himself from the country that has effectively ended the young player’s career.
"I'm urging the Argentinian team to stand in solidarity with us and to boycott the scheduled game with Israel, which is occupying our land," Mr Khalil told The National.
Israel's football federation has reportedly paid Argentina US$3 million (Dh11m) to play the match, which will be halved if Messi does not appear. But the Palestinian is appealing to the conscience of Buenos Aires' top footballers.
“Football is a game of morality before anything else, there is nothing friendly about Israel killing peaceful protesters in Gaza. This is why the Argentinian team should stand by us with an iron fist,” he said.
“Our wounds have not healed yet,” Mr Khalil said of the deadly protests in recent weeks. He adds that a boycott by Messi would give hope to Gazans who have suffered under a brutal 11-year Israeli siege of the territory.
The Palestinians have long complained that Israel's security forces regularly prevent athletes from travelling freely between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. The Palestinian FA has called on world football body Fifa to suspend Israel's membership and to ban six settlement teams in the West Bank that play in Israel's national football league.
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The region’s most popular sport, and one of its most popular players, have not been able to avoid being dragged into the quagmire of the decades-long conflict.
Messi, long viewed as one of the greatest to ever grace a football pitch, has been at the centre of a PR tug of war between Israelis and Palestinians for years.
In 2013, he embarked on a "peace tour" to the region with his Barcelona teammates. Palestinians described his visit to the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Dura as the most important in their sporting history. Israelis declared their trip, in which they held an official reception with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as "historic".
During their West Bank tour, Barcelona said they wanted to play a friendly match against a side made up equally of Palestinian and Israeli players in Tel Aviv. But the Middle Eastern neighbours could not agree on arrangements to facilitate the fixture.
Mr Khalil’s prospects of playing the beautiful game again, like that peace match, are slim. More urgent medical cases among Gaza’s population of two million have stalled two operations on his knees.
The footballer, who studied business management at university alongside the sport, had dreamt of playing outside of the enclave. But Israel’s siege of Gaza, and now its bullets, have made that goal impossible to achieve.
“To me, becoming a football star is a dream that I have always pursued, I dreamed of making it as a professional,” he said, adding that he hopes he can undergo surgery to reignite that ambition.
Argentina has faced Israel in several pre-World Cup matches and, despite the controversy surrounding the match, the latest fixture is set to go ahead. Pressure continues to be applied by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has started a #NothingFriendly social media campaign.
For Mr Khalil, who requires surgery if he is to ever walk again, he hopes both that message and his plea will discourage the five-time Ballon d’Or winner from stepping onto the grass in Israel next month.