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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - In the first days of October, followers of Palestinian sport were consumed by issues and events that are the primary concern of fans across the world.
There was pride in seeing Hala Al-Qadi, a 22-year-old Karetka from Deir Istya, win a bronze medal at the Asian Games. Football fans were busy dissecting and analizing the moves of the national team manager Makram Daboub ahead of the country’s first World Cup qualifier in November and the Asian Cup finals in January.
Israel’s brutal bombardment of Gaza has shifted the focus to non-sporting matters.
At the outbreak of the war, Palestine’s Futsal Team was in Tajikistan competing to qualify for the Asian Championships next year. In spite of events back home, and the emotional turmoil many in the squad were facing, the team opted to continue their campaign.
The anguish was etched on the face of Mousa Harara, whose celebrations in the win against India were reduced to a pair of interlocked fists. The 24-year-old’s talent has seen him play several codes of football; earning a living as a talented jack-of-all trades for Ittihad Al-Shojaeya on the grass pitch, while representing Palestine’s national team on the hardcourt and on sand.
Palestine’s footballers, particularly those from Gaza, are no strangers to the effects of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. Current national team players Mohammed Balah and Mohammed Saleh defied the odds by pursuing professional careers in the top flights of Jordan, Oman and Egypt. Both lost their houses to Israel’s May 2021 bombing campaign. Two years later, both players have suffered horrific loss again.
Saleh’s Al-Rimal neighborhood in Gaza was bombed again, and last week the defender posted on Facebook that both his cousins and their families (a total of 10 people) had been killed as a result of an Israeli airstrike.
Balah, meanwhile, has been unreachable since Oct. 11. The striker had returned to Gaza to increase his chances of being selected for the national team following an ACL tear that kept him on the sidelines at Egyptian club Al-Mary.
In one of his final posts on Instagram, Balah said: “Maybe (in) a few hours, we will be cut off from the world, due to a power outage and the batteries will lose the charge. The Israelis bombed the telecommunications and Internet company, they bombed the electricity company and the power generators in the streets.
“The rest of the generators don’t have any stock of diesel. We will die in silence, away from the eyes of the world and friends.”
Some have narrowly escaped death. Mohammed Elrekhawi was pulled from the rubble wearing the shorts of his club, Shab Rafah.
Fourteen years ago, his brother Hazem had been announced dead after the bus he had been riding in was struck by an Israeli F-16 fighter jet. With shrapnel wounds marking his entire body, he was put in a fridge at the hospital’s morgue. Five hours later, a mother looking to identify the body of her dead son noticed Elrekhawi’s hand was moving.
The midfielder was rushed to the ICU and made a miraculous recovery and return to football, embarking on a career in the West Bank Premier League where he represented eight clubs over the course of a 10-year career. The 34-year old decided to return to his hometown of Rafah this season to play alongside his older brother.
Others have not been so lucky. An accurate count of footballers who have died in the latest round of violence is not known, with many bodies still to be retrieved from the rubble. There have been reports of at least seven professional footballers and a referee, along with many administrators and children, being killed in the latest round of violence.
While the Palestinian sporting community mourns its dead, the focus will soon return to the mission at hand. The current iteration of Palestine’s national football team is considered the best it has been since its readmission to FIFA in 1998. With an expanded World Cup finals due to take place in 2026 and eight spots reserved for Asian teams, Palestine fans have hope and expectation of a serious run.
Al-Fida’i will have to face multiple hurdles to embark on such a historic run. First, the Asian Football Confederation has told Palestine it must choose a neutral ground in which to host its first qualifier against Australia on Nov. 21. Second, the Palestine Football Association will have to find a way to get many of its staff and team members out of the West Bank and to the land border with Jordan. Travel between cities in the West Bank has been dangerous, with Israeli settlers blocking the roads and attacking Palestinian vehicles.
Athletes that have called for a cease-fire include Ons Jabeur, Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Mesut Ozil and Eric Cantona.
That message was echoed by clubs and fans alike the world over, with fans from Africa, Asia, South America and Europe taking to the stands after the international break to show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause and demand a cease-fire.
The Palestinian flag was flown in Sevilla, San Sebastian and Pamplona in spite of La Liga’s ban. Flags and a banner reading “For God’s Sake, Save Gaza” were also seen at Anfield during the Merseyside Derby.
With the UN Security Council unable to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire, pressure from ordinary people in the terraces might prove crucial in turning public opinion and forcing governments into action.
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