Palestine unveils sports plan in effort to further state- and nationhood

Pales­tine is scor­ing points on and off the soc­cer pitch as it seeks to employ sports to fur­ther its bid for state­hood, ensure inter­na­tion­al sup­port in its strug­gle against the debil­i­tat­ing effects of Israeli occu­pa­tion and ini­ti­ate a social rev­o­lu­tion at home.

The Pales­tin­ian effort kicked into high gear this month with the unveil­ing of an ambi­tious ten-year plan backed by the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) and the Pales­tine Author­i­ty to devel­op sports and a women’s friend­ly soc­cer match against world cham­pi­on Japan.

The plan draft­ed by Span­ish con­sul­tants hired by the IOC, which calls for a €61 mil­lion invest­ment in sports facil­i­ties, was pre­sent­ed this week to donors by Pales­tin­ian Prime Min­is­ter Salam Fayyad, for­eign min­is­ter Riyad al-Mal­ki and Jib­ril Rajoub, who dou­bles as head of the Pales­tine Olympic Com­mit­tee and the territory’s soc­cer asso­ci­a­tion.

“This is a break­through. Sports is a Pales­tine Author­i­ty pri­or­i­ty along­side trans­porta­tion and water,” gushed Jerome Cham­pagne, a for­mer polit­i­cal advi­sor to world soc­cer body FIFA pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter, who now advis­es the Pales­tine Author­i­ty on sports, after the pre­sen­ta­tion in Ramal­lah.

Mr. Cham­pagne said he expect­ed fund­ing for the ten-year plan to be made avail­able at the next meet­ing of Palestine’s donors. That could take a lit­tle while with the Unit­ed States delay­ing the con­ven­ing of the meet­ing to stymie Euro­pean Union efforts to play a more impor­tant role in the Mid­dle East.

Effect­ed by the glob­al finan­cial cri­sis donors could also ulti­mate­ly prove to be less gen­er­ous than Pales­tini­ans hope. Diplo­mat­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Unit­ed Nations, Spain, France, Italy, Britain and Brazil wel­comed the plan but stressed at the meet­ing in Ramal­lah what they were already doing to sup­port Pales­tin­ian sports rather than what they would do. To be fair, the diplo­mats were not the ones that con­trol their coun­tries’ purse strings.

The Pales­tine Authority’s empha­sis on sports and the pre­sen­ta­tion of its ten-year plan could how­ev­er not have come at polit­i­cal­ly con­ve­nient time for Pales­tine Author­i­ty.

To be sure, the plan has been long in the mak­ing and Pales­tine has come a long way since becom­ing in 1998 the first nation with­out a state to become a mem­ber of FIFA. In the last year, Pales­tine has played its first World Cup and Olympic qual­i­fiers on Pales­tin­ian soil. Its nation­al women’s soc­cer team is break­ing taboos in a tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive soci­ety.

Nonethe­less, Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas’ Pales­tine Author­i­ty has been polit­i­cal­ly weak­ened by its inabil­i­ty to force Israel to make con­ces­sions the Pales­tini­ans need to agree to a revival of peace talks and Israel’s boost of Hamas with this month’s swap of Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Pales­tini­ans incar­cer­at­ed by Israel.

In empha­sis­ing sports and iden­ti­fy­ing with it, the author­i­ty is fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of oth­er Mid­dle East­ern lead­ers who saw soc­cer, the region’s most pop­u­lar sport, as a tool to pol­ish their tar­nished images and dis­tract atten­tion from dis­con­tent with gov­ern­ment poli­cies. But in con­trast to those lead­ers, they are pro­mot­ing sports on a far more pop­u­lar and trans­par­ent lev­el and in ways that ben­e­fit the pub­lic and push the social enve­lope.

“We want this (plan) to be seen as an inte­grat­ed part of our nation­al devel­op­ment plan, an indis­pens­able com­po­nent,” Mr. Fayyad told the diplo­mats, describ­ing the sports ini­tia­tive as “a hope­ful enter­prise.” He said recall­ing his recent atten­dance at a soc­cer match that sports pro­vides “a sense of joy, hap­pi­ness of the peo­ple with just being there.”

“We are wit­ness­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of rev­o­lu­tion… We are allow­ing peo­ple to release fears. They have the right to fight to achieve self-deter­mi­na­tion in sports like in any oth­er field,” added Mr. Mal­ki.

The devel­op­ment plan is designed to project Pales­tine inter­na­tion­al­ly as a nation and a state, strength­en nation-build­ing and social devel­op­ment at home and focus atten­tion on the debil­i­tat­ing effects of Israeli trav­el restric­tions on Pales­tin­ian ath­letes. “For me, sport is a tool to realise the Pales­tin­ian people’s nation­al aspi­ra­tions by expos­ing our cause through sports. I think that the ethics of sports and foot­ball is a ratio­nal and human­i­tar­i­an way to con­vince the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty that we deserve free­dom and inde­pen­dence,” said Mr. Rajoub who dou­bles as Pales­tine Olympic Com­mit­tee and Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion czar.

Mr. Rajoub, a for­mer Pales­tin­ian secu­ri­ty chief with a mil­i­tary bear­ing who spent 17 years in Israeli prison, met his Israeli Olympic Com­mit­tee coun­ter­part for a third time this year in advance of the launch of the plan to dis­cuss coop­er­a­tion in eas­ing the restric­tions on ath­letes as well as the move­ment of sports mate­ri­als. The two com­mit­tees estab­lished a hot­line to facil­i­tate the move­ment of ath­letes stuck at Israeli check­points on the West Bank. They also looked at ways of enabling trav­el between the West Bank and the Hamas-con­trolled Gaza Strip.

Despite good­will, the effort has so far pro­duced lim­it­ed results. Pales­tini­ans are wait­ing to see whether the pro­cess­ing three months ago of their last ship­ment from FIFA through Tel Aviv’s Ben Guri­on Air­port in less than a week con­sti­tutes a change in Israeli atti­tudes. Until then ship­ments were held up for up to six months, incur­ring stor­age and oth­er costs for the Pales­tini­ans that amount­ed to a mul­ti-fold of the val­ue of the goods shipped.

There has how­ev­er been only lim­it­ed improve­ment in ath­letes’ abil­i­ty to move around the West Bank or between the Pales­tine Author­i­ty-con­trolled region and the Gaza Strip. “The prob­lem is the Israeli com­mit­tee is not the rel­e­vant author­i­ty for the move­ment of peo­ple and equip­ment. We are try­ing, but I don’t want to embar­rass any­one,” Mr. Rajoub says.

Nonethe­less, soc­cer offi­cials and play­ers con­cede that cross­ing check­points has become some­what eas­i­er this year. They attribute it pri­mar­i­ly to improved secu­ri­ty with Israel less con­cerned about the threat of ter­ror­ist attacks being launched from the West Bank. In addi­tion, the PFA has cre­at­ed sleep­ing quar­ters in the Faisal Hus­sein Sta­di­um so that play­ers can get togeth­er to train with­out wor­ry­ing whether they will be able to return home.

The per­ceived eas­ing has done lit­tle for 13 of the 25 mem­bers of the Pales­tin­ian nation­al soc­cer team who hail from Gaza. Goal­keep­er Assem Abu Assi thinks of his wife and son in Gaza when­ev­er the Pales­tin­ian flag is raised at an inter­na­tion­al match. Mr. Abu Assi has not seen them in four years because of an Israel refusal to grant him a trav­el per­mit. Mid-field­ers Maali Kawari and Ismail Al Amur too have not been allowed to return for vis­its to Gaza.

“My dream is to just play foot­ball with my fam­i­ly watch­ing in the sta­di­um. It has nev­er hap­pened. Hap­pi­ness is nev­er com­plete. I’m always only half hap­py,” Mr. Abu Assi says.

He and his co-play­ers see soc­cer how­ev­er as more than just a game. It con­sti­tutes their con­tri­bu­tion to achiev­ing Pales­tin­ian state­hood. “Rais­ing the Pales­tin­ian flag on the roof of a house in Pales­tine is a big issue. It is an even big­ger issues when we raise the flag as a state out­side the coun­try,” Mr. Abu Assi says. “Soc­cer is a way to build a state. When we go to India or Thai­land, we put Pales­tine on the map,” adds Mr. Kawari. “The Israelis know that sport is good for Pales­tini­ans. That’s why they try to lim­it our suc­cess,” Mr. Al Amur chips in.

The prob­lems imple­ment­ing the Pales­tin­ian sports devel­op­ment plan are fur­ther illus­trat­ed by FIFA and Pales­tin­ian efforts to get Israeli approval for the import of Jor­dan­ian per­son­nel and mate­ri­als to build two FIFA-fund­ed soc­cer play­ing grounds in the Pales­tin­ian West Bank towns of Qalqilya and El Bireh. “The Israelis do not allow us to start the project. Our dead­line is at the end of the year. Oth­er­wise we lose the project,” says Nab­han Khraishi, a PFA media advi­sor.

Mr. Khraishi says the Israeli author­i­ties are delay­ing the El Bireh project because it is too close to the Israeli set­tle­ment of Psagot. The Israelis fear that the gath­er­ing of excit­ed fans so close to one of their out­posts could spark anti-Israeli protests at a time that anti-gov­ern­ment protests are sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

The strug­gle for state and nation­hood is not only one in which Pales­tini­ans con­front the Israelis. It is also a strug­gle for the kind of soci­ety Pales­tini­ans want their coun­try to be. That is nowhere more true than with the right of women to play soc­cer.

The nation­al women’s team faced two obsta­cles when it met world cham­pi­on Japan ear­li­er this month on the soc­cer pitch in Hebron, the West Bank’s most con­ser­v­a­tive town that unlike Ramal­lah, Beth­le­hem or East Jerusalem does not count Chris­tians among its res­i­dents. The match more­over under­scored dif­fer­ences with­in the Islamist move­ment with the city’s Hamas may­or sup­port­ing the women’s team and the local Hizb ut Tahrir move­ment oppos­ing it.

Hizb ut Tahrir web­sites denounced the team as “naked bitch­es” even though they wore leg­gings and at least one of the squad’s play­ers dons a hijab, an Islam­ic head­dress that cov­ers the hair, ears and neck. Hizb ut Tahrir imams denounced the match from the pul­pit in their mosques; school prin­ci­pals in Hebron banned their stu­dents from attend­ing the match warn­ing them that they would burn in hell if they went to the sta­di­um. The PFA was forced to bus in sup­port­ers.

Crowds cheered the team as they left the sta­di­um even though they lost to Japan with a whop­ping 19:0. The team, which unlike its oppo­nent is made up of uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents rather than pro­fes­sion­als, recov­ered in a sec­ond match, los­ing only 4:0 from the world cham­pi­on. “It was a social rev­o­lu­tion. We broke the bar­ri­er and taboo when we went to Hebron and Nablus (a con­ser­v­a­tive city in the north of the West Bank). The whole bar­ri­er col­lapsed” Mr. Rajoub says.

It no doubt was the begin­ning of a social rev­o­lu­tion, how­ev­er one that has yet to play out. A major­i­ty of the play­ers in Palestine’s six women soc­cer clubs as well as its nation­al team are Chris­tians rather than Mus­lims. Yet, even play­ers from Chris­t­ian fam­i­lies often fight bat­tles at home to be allowed to play. Clau­dia Salameh, a 21-year old busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion stu­dent, said her fam­i­ly want­ed her to stop when she got engaged but that her fiancé had sup­port­ed her. Oth­er play­ers report sim­i­lar splits in their fam­i­lies.

“Things are chang­ing. It depends on what area of the coun­try. Lifestyles are chang­ing. Three years ago it was unac­cept­able for girls to walk in the streets with shorts. It was unac­cept­able to play soc­cer, run or ride a bicy­cle in shorts. Now it is ok in Ramal­lah, Beth­le­hem and Jerusalem,” Ms. Salameh said.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.