Resistance on tour: Palestine contests Asian Cup

Resistance on tour: Palestine contests Asian Cup
Palestine's football team enters the Asian Cup finals for the first team. The team has not just had to confront its opponents on the pitch, but also battle the occupation to fly its team to Australia for the tournament.
3 min read
09 January, 2015
Palestine's football team have faced innumerable obstacles to reach the Asian Cup finals (AFP)

Palestinians are pinning both sporting and political aspirations on their national football team as it prepares for its Asian Cup debut in Australia.

For many Palestinians, sporting prowess is just as important as political and diplomatic moves to achieve statehood with the national team viewed as a part of the national "resistance" - dubbed "al-Fidaee" - after the militants who fought Israel in the decades after its establishment in 1948.

"Sport is still an important weapon in politics," said the  Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at a ceremony to mark the 23-man squad's departure for the tournament.

Football as a weapon

The Palestinians have made some inroads toward achieving statehood, winning the rank of observer state at the UN in 2012, but have struggled to gain full membership.

FIFA, however, recognised the Palestine national team in 1998.

The team, ranked 115th in the world, will kick off its Asia Cup campaign against Japan on 12 January. Placed in Group D, Palestine will also play Jordan and Iraq over the coming fortnight.

"This is a historic occasion for us as it is our first Asian Cup," striker Ashraf al-Fawaghra told the website.

     The national team viewed as a part of the national "resistance" - dubbed "al-Fidaee" - after the militants who fought Israel.

"Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team is moving forward, despite the difficulties facing us. We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop," the 28-year-old said.

"We want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy."

Kept off the field

Palestinian players face difficulties in getting to and from tournaments both at home and away due to tight Israeli restrictions on movement, and some have been arrested or imprisoned.

An international under-17s tournament hosted by the Palestinians in 2013 was delayed after Israel refused to grant entry visas to some Arab players, and the competition went ahead only after pressure from Fifa and Uefa.

Some Palestinian players have even been killed, including Gaza football legend Ahed Zaqqut, 49, who died during a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants last year. 

For Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajub, a leader within Abbas's Fatah party, the beautiful game has a unique status for Palestinians. 

"For the rest of the world it's just sport - cups, medals, and so on. But in Palestine, it's part of the project for liberation, a political project," he told AFP.

"The Palestine team, which is playing against the biggest teams in Asia has - despite the occupation... and repression by Israel - attracted the attention of the media and the international community," he said.

"Red card"

Using football terminology to further the Palestinian cause, Rajub has regularly urged Fifa to show Israel the "red card", and suspend its membership for its oppression.

For him and for many others, the raising of Palestinian flags at stadiums in the host nation Australia will be a sweet sight. Australia was one of only two countries in the 15-member UN Security Council to vote against a Palestinian resolution last year that called for an end date for the Israeli occupation. The other was the US, Israel's closest ally.

Palestine, which won last year's AFC Challenge Cup, was named best national team in 2014 by the Asian Football Confederation.

Its squad reflects the disparate nature of the stateless Palestinian people. Six play professionally abroad, six come from Gaza, three are from the Palestinian diaspora, and three are Palestinian-Israelis.

A fourth Palestinian-Israeli was selected to play but was unable to join the squad for fears he would lose his teaching job in Israel. 

For now, tensions with Israel will remain far from the pitch because teams from the Jewish state only play in European tournaments.