Palestine’s diplomatic victory ahead of World Cup match against UAE

Tickets for the game have nearly sold out as excitement builds about the historic event, writes Michele Monni.

Palestinians line up for the national anthem during the 2015 Asian Cup match between Palestine and Jordan at AAMI Park on January 16 in Melbourne. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
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RAMALLAH // Palestinians are celebrating victory even before their national team plays the UAE in a World Cup qualifying match this week.

The match on Tuesday marks the first time the senior Palestinian football side has been able to host a competitive game since 2011, and comes on the back of a growing international profile in the sport and a successful campaign against Israeli restrictions at the world governing body, Fifa.

"We are definitely ready to host such an historical event. Currently we are giving the final touches to the facilities in order to make sure that the stadium is up to Fifa's standard," Susan Shalabi, director of international department at the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), told The National.

Tuesday’s game at Faisal Al Husseini stadium in Al Ram, just outside Jerusalem, will not only require Israel to admit players from a country with which it has no diplomatic ties, but also enables Palestinian players from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to travel to the West Bank.

The UAE team will cross into the West Bank from Jordan through the Allenby border checkpoint, said an official from Cogat, the Israeli body administering the occupied Palestinian territories. Cogat is also evaluating permit requests from UAE supporters, the official said.

“This is a historic moment, the first Arab country to play in Palestine for the qualification of the World Cup,” the head of the PFA, Jibril Rajoub, said. “It’s a clear message that Palestine is ready to host such an event.

“I just hope that the Israelis will respect their commitment and let the players from Gaza to come to the West Bank and recognise our right to develop the game.”

Tickets for the game have nearly sold out, according to an official at MEENA Productions, a Palestine-based media company that the PFA has contracted to promote and coordinate the fixture.

The qualifying campaign is for the 2018 World Cup and, should they reach the tournament in Russia, it would be the Palestinian team’s second appearance in a major competition since Fifa recognised it in 1998. The national side, made up of local players and foreign players of Palestinian origin, appeared at the Asian Cup held in Australia in January.

The location of the stadium, between the green line and the Israeli separation barrier, under the Jerusalem municipality, is further cause for celebration among Palestinians who seek to have the eastern part of the city, holy to the world’s three main religions, as the capital of their future state.

The dramatic shift in Israel’s restrictive policies towards Palestinian football and sport in general appears to be the result of a battle against the Israeli Football Association (IFA) by the PFA, led by Mr Rajoub, a boisterous former head of Palestinian security in the West Bank.

The feud reached its peak during the Fifa general assembly in May. The Palestinians had waged a months-long international campaign to have Israel ousted from the world football body, claiming gross violations of freedom of movement and encroachment on the rights of Palestinians to develop football.

The Palestinians have always enjoyed broad support in Fifa due to the assembly being mainly composed of countries from Africa, Asia and South America that have suffered from colonialism. Many of the countries have identified with the Palestinian cause.

The removal request was theatrically withdrawn by Mr Rajoub after the intervention of Fifa chief Sepp Blatter. In exchange, the PFA asked for the creation of a mechanism to monitor Israeli violations, such as restrictions on movement, arrests and harassment of PFA staff, and army raids on the association’s facilities, such as the one on its headquarters in November last year.

Mr Rajoub is accused by some detractors of using football as a tool to force the Palestinian cause into the world political arena and to further his ambitions with the Palestinian National Authority, which governs the West Bank, rather than representing a genuine struggle for the rights of Palestinian sportsmen and women.

However, the PFA’s campaign has borne results. The first signs of a different approach by Israeli authorities was seen in two games played between the West bank team Ahli Al Khalil from Hebron and the Gaza team Ittihad Shujaiyeh last month — the first time in 15 years that Palestinian teams were allowed to travel between the two territories to compete for the ad hoc created Palestinian Super Cup.

Both teams had won their respective championships but the trophy went to Al Khalil, managed by Stefano Cusin. The Italian coach previously worked with legendary Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga as assistant manager at three Dubai football clubs, such as Al Nasr, Fujairah SC and Al Jazira.

Some analysts described the unprecedented matches played in the West Bank and Gaza a signal of a long-awaited easing in the animosity between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, divided for nearly a decade after a bloody civil war for the control of the Gaza Strip.