'We were there to just watch football': When a friendly Palestinian league final turned to smoke and chaos after a mid-game Israeli invasion
On March 30, the Yasser Arafat Cup Final — Palestine’s version of the League Cup — was unfolding how most observers of Palestinian domestic football thought it would.
The matchup pitted Jerusalem side Jabal Al-Mukaber, who had lifted the league title weeks earlier with a record point haul against the less fancied Nablus-based Balata FC.
At halftime, Jabal Al-Mukaber was up 1-0 thanks to a goal from up-and-coming striker Zeid Qombor. The halftime whistle sent both teams to the dressing rooms and seemed to conclude the match’s normalcy.
However, Israeli military vehicles showed up at the stroke of halftime and surrounded the periphery of the Faisal Al-Husseini stadium in the town of Al-Ram in the Jerusalem governorate.
Teargas canisters were fired shortly afterwards into the stadium sewing panic amongst the fans in the stands. In the dressing rooms, the gas caused players to choke and several Balata FC players fainted.
"The occupation started attacking us and half the guys I was with fainted. We came from Nablus and the North to support Balata… We didn’t have any weapons on us, we were there to watch a football game"
Football has always been part of the national fabric of Palestine. The game has a history that dates back to 1908 when two teams were formed in Jerusalem by Rawdat Al-Mara’ef and the St. George’s School.
During the mandate period, the country’s football association was accepted into FIFA and would go on to participate in World Cup qualifying for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups.
As a condition of their ascendancy to FIFA, the original Palestine Football Association (PFA) had to include both Arab and Jewish teams.
The PFA, however, would become an exclusively Zionist organisation soon after obtaining FIFA status in 1928 and that sporting body would become the forerunner to the Israel Football Association.
Palestine tried several times over the next 70 years to obtain FIFA membership and was rebuffed at every attempt.
Despite this, some very famous players turned out for the national team in Pan-Arab tournaments and went on to achieve professional acclaim: Jabra Al-Zarqa received an offer to play for Arsenal in 1945, Marwan Kanfani and Fouad Abu Ghaida played for the legendary club Al-Ahly Cairo in the 1960s, Ibrahim Mughrabi became the first foreigner to play in the Greek League when he signed for AEK Athens in 1962.
In 1998, Palestine was finally recognised by FIFA. For the following 16 years, Palestine led an existence on international football’s periphery until successfully qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup on May 30, 2014.
They have since played at the 2019 edition and will compete at the 2023 edition in Qatar this winter with a squad headlined by one of Asia’s best Goalkeepers — Rami Hamadi — and Oday Dabbagh, who is his team’s top scorer in the Portuguese top-flight.
The Yasser Arafat Cup Final started out as a celebration. It was the seventh night of Ramadan and the match coincided with Land Day.
Hundreds of Balata supporters had made the two-hour journey from Nablus to support their team. The atmosphere was lively but fans were cordial to one another and no more than one-quarter of the 9,000-seat stadium was occupied.
“We left at halftime to go pray and get something to eat for suhoor,” said a Balata FC supporter who wished to remain anonymous.
“The occupation started attacking us and half the guys I was with fainted. We came from Nablus and the North to support Balata… We didn’t have any weapons on us, we were there to watch a football game.”
At halftime, the pitch was in an utter state of chaos. Fans in the away section escaped onto the pitch to avoid inhaling gas from the canisters that had been fired into the stands.
There were canisters on the pitch that needed to be cleared. Members of both teams had also come out onto the pitch as the dressing rooms became engulfed in smoke. The VIPs in attendance, among them PFA President Jibril Rajoub and Turkey’s ambassador to Palestine, were also on the field.
“Most of my players are having trouble right now because of the teargas they have inhaled,” Balata FC captain Saed Abu Saleem told Palestine Youth & Sport TV in a live interview amid the chaos.
Last October, hundreds perished in a stadium disaster in Indonesia after a stampede was triggered following the use of tear gas — banned by FIFA — by police in the stadium. Only three injuries were reported in the aftermath of the chaos at the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium thanks in large part to the sparse crowd.
This is not the first time Israeli forces have targeted the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium and the adjacent PFA headquarters.
In November 2014, Israeli forces broke into PFA headquarters to conduct a search of the premises and interrogate employees. FIFA President Sepp Blatter condemned the act but no penalties were levied against Israeli football.
Shortly after that incident, the PFA launched a campaign to suspend Israel from FIFA but backed down at the 11th hour.
It looked like all had resigned to postponing or cancelling the game but the teams defiantly lined up for the second half. Following an extended delay at halftime, more than seven minutes of injury time was added on.
Tear gas continued to be fired outside of the stadium causing Jabal Al-Mukaber goalkeeper, Rami Hamadi, to be treated for smoke inhalation in the 84th minute. When asked how the teams managed to finish the match Hamadi said: “At that moment, I saw how everyone came together and how we forgot that we are competitors. Everyone took a stand and was ready to help. That was the true victory that was achieved that night.”
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the Union of Arab Football Associations (UAFA) have since condemned the attack on the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium, while the PFA is working to get a rebuke from FIFA who has remained strangely silent on the matter.
As for the match itself, Jabal Al-Mukaber prevailed 1-0 with Hamadi denying the visiting team on several occasions.
Bassil Mikdadi is the creator of Football Palestine and an international football pundit. His work has been featured in the BBC, The Totally Football Show, and The Guardian
Follow him on Twitter: @6mikdadi