It's not just a game: Sport, foul play and the battle for Palestinian liberation

Sport, foul play and the battle for Palestinian liberation
8 min read
22 December, 2022
Sport was a major arena for the early Palestinian struggle against Zionism, with the fight reaching its climax in the 1970s, only to decline swiftly after the Camp David Accords in 1978 which drastically undermined organised Arab solidarity.

Sport was one of the many spheres of the struggle between the Zionist project and the Palestinian revolution. The former strove to manufacture roots for itself in the land of Palestine through sport, and consolidate the idea that Israel was a fully formed state with both a political and a sporting presence.

The latter strived to achieve two goals: firstly, promoting the Palestinian nationalist entity through sport, by gaining recognition for Palestinian associations and ensuring its players were represented in all international competitions; and secondly, pushing to isolate Israel – as an illegitimate, occupying entity - and eject it from the continental and international associations.

Peak of struggle for legitimacy through sport

The struggle reached its peak in the 1970s, after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) set up the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports (SCYS) to organise sporting activities, and following the entry of the Arab and Islamic states into the Asian sports federations. However, sport had been instrumentalised much earlier on by the Zionist movement, the Palestinian political elite and the British occupation forces, each in a different way.

"The Maccabiah Games provided cover for tens of thousands of youths to enter the country. They didn't leave after the games ended – but stayed and went on to form the backbone of the Zionist paramilitaries; the Irgun and Haganah"

Sport has been used by the Zionist movement since Zionist emigration to Palestine began. The Zionist movement set up an Olympiad for Jewish teams across the world to compete (these teams were known as the Maccabi Clubs).

When emigration to Palestine was restricted by the British Mandate authorities in the 1930s, the Maccabiah Games provided cover for tens of thousands of youths to enter the country. They didn't leave after the games ended – but stayed and went on to form the backbone of the Zionist paramilitaries; the Irgun and Haganah.  

As for the Palestinians, sporting institutions linked to political aims were an early phenomenon too. The Arab Club in Jerusalem was among the first clubs set up with a nationalist-political character, taking on roles linked to Arab nationalism and opposition to the Zionist project.

In 1920, several high-ranking officials from the Palestinian nationalist elite including the mayor of Jerusalem, Musa Kazim Husseini, stood on the balcony of the Arab Club to passionately address the angry crowds, moments before the Nabi Musa riots erupted.

With British complicity, Israel successfully hijacked representation of sports in Mandate Palestine, with the Zionist movement seizing sole control of the Palestinian Football Association upon its creation in 1928. Arab teams were marginalised and administrative councils within the body were made up of Jewish members alone.

Sport, foul play and the battle for Palestinian liberation
Musa Kazim Husseini (C) in Amman, Jordan in 1923 [Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty]

Despite official Palestinian protests to FIFA, and their demands that an independent Palestinian Football Association be set up - or at least that the existing one be rectified - these efforts always collided with the strong Zionist presence in FIFA, which managed to obstruct efforts by the Palestinian (Arab) Football Association to join until 1998.

In 1964 the PLO was established. However, the importance of sport only dawned on the national liberation movement relatively late - in 1969 a Supreme Council for Youth and Sports (SCYS) was set up. This body entered a long, drawn-out battle to establish Palestine's presence through sports, by attending regional, continental and international forums, and strove to challenge Israel's presence internationally. Israel, for its part, established a network of advocates in many international federations, including the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).

Asian Weightlifting Federation (1974)

On 13 September 1974, the Asian Weightlifting Federation (AWF) began its conference in Manila. IWF General Secretary Oscar State gave a speech in which he demanded Palestine be excluded from the championship and the conference, declaring: "It is not a state and its people do not exist." The head of the Palestinian delegation objected, affirming the moral legitimacy of the Palestinian people and the PLO, and denouncing State's statement.

"With British complicity, Israel successfully hijacked representation of sports in Mandate Palestine, with the Zionist movement seizing sole control of the Palestinian Football Association upon its creation in 1928"

In the ensuing argument, a spokesman from the Philippine Weightlifting Association approved the IWF's request that the Philippines foreign affairs department be asked to prevent the Palestinian delegation from entering and participating. The other option was cancelling the entire tournament, they stated. However, the President of the Philippine Weightlifting Association had already encouraged Palestinian participation previously, declaring: "Come to Manila, even if you have to swim!"

State then tried to bribe the Palestinian delegation, offering them $50,000 in exchange for withdrawing, to point-blank refusal from the Palestinians and an intervention by the AWF President who addressed State: "We won't let anyone meddle with our internal regulations - a Palestinian delegation will take part whether you like it or not."

The state refused to back down, insisting he had the support of the Philippines' foreign affairs department, threatening again to cancel the tournament. The Palestinian delegation responded, declaring it would sponsor and host the championship entirely at its own expense if that happened.

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The Palestinian delegation contacted the Egyptian consulate asking for their intervention and protection. Egypt intervened diplomatically, and the Arab delegates stood with the Palestinians. While this was happening, an Israeli media campaign started airing in the Philippines media, demanding Palestine be banned from the championship, while Israel used diplomatic channels to try to secure the entry of an Israeli delegation.

However, the Arab efforts triumphed – Palestine was allowed to attend and Israel was barred. This tug-of-war carried on until 1978 when they culminated with the ejection of Israel from the AWF, which ignored the IWF's threat that Asian Cup participants would be penalised if Israel was not allowed to take part.

Asian Football Confederation (1974)

Israel's setback in the Philippines coincided with the Arabs dealing Israeli football a killer blow in Malaysia. While after the AWF congress meeting in Manila, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was discussing freezing Israel's membership at their congress in Kuala Lumpur.

"The Israeli-Palestinian struggle in the sporting arena – with Palestine backed by the Arab world – maintained its intensity until the end of the 1970s, with the opponents attacking each other across different international tournaments"

This was despite Israel being one of the founders of the AFC in 1954 and dominating its tournaments for two decades, with its team reaching the finals of the Asian Cup three times and winning once. Israeli clubs had also won the Asian Champions League on three occasions. Ahmed Al-Sadoun – then president of the Kuwait Football Association – led Arab and Muslim efforts to expel Israel from the confederation and turned the tables.

On 15 September 1974, Al-Sadoun submitted a resolution that Israel's membership be frozen. A large number of Arab states had recently joined the AFC, and the resolution was voted for and Israel expelled: Israeli football was to remain without a continental federation until the 1990s.

On the Palestinian front; the PLO's SCYS played an organisational role in the sports and youth sectors, seeing its central goal as promoting the national cause through sports. The council made use of PLO relations with socialist and revolutionary forces across the world to achieve this goal; Palestine gaining membership of the Asian Table Tennis Union (ATTU) is one example of how it did this.

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Asian Table Tennis Union (1972)

In 1972 the People's Republic of China held a conference to establish the ATTU. The SCYS took advantage of the conference's setting in a friendly country: a Palestinian delegation headed to Peking and joined preparations for setting up the new union, for which it was acknowledged as a founding member. Moreover, the host state's support led to Palestine heading the committee which formed the union's leadership, and [a Palestinian] obtaining the position Deputy President.  

World Karate Championships (1977)

In 1977, Palestine took part in the 1977 World Karate Championships in Japan. While the opening procession was underway, a member of Israel's delegation brandished the Israeli flag provocatively. One member of the Palestinian delegation reacted furiously, snatching it and throwing it to the ground. A scuffle between the two sides over the flag followed and was broadcast on Japanese TV for fifteen minutes. Afterwards, after huge Israeli diplomatic pressure, the Palestinians were banned from following tournaments.

Camp David: End of an era

The Israeli-Palestinian struggle in the sporting arena – with Palestine backed by the Arab world – maintained its intensity until the end of the 1970s, with the opponents attacking each other across different international tournaments. This ended in 1982 when Palestine's international sporting presence declined along with Arab solidarity, which had been debilitated by the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel (1978). Then came Israel's invasion of Lebanon, which decimated the PLO institutions, including the SCYS.

Keeping the flame alive

Nevertheless, the battle over sports has had a lasting impact, and its legacy is still felt today in Palestine and the Arab world. The most important feature of this legacy is in the remaining strongholds of the sports boycott against Israel – the roots of which lie in that period - and which are still going strong to this day.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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