Persecuted for playing football

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Palestinians are obstructed from playing and, sometimes, even watching football. I learned that as a child.  One day in the summer of 2004, I was making my way to see a match in a southern Gaza stadium. To get there, I had to cross an Israeli military checkpoint.  When I and other football fans arrived at the checkpoint, the soldiers there told us to wait. After an hour had passed, we were informed that we could not venture any further because of “security reasons” – the excuse Israel often uses to stop Palestinians living normal lives.

The incident left me with a deep sense of anger. Football is a sport enjoyed universally. Why were we not allowed to enjoy it too?

Since then, Israel has supposedly “disengaged” from Gaza. Its forces of occupation have moved to the boundary between Gaza and Israel, from where they frequently fire on Palestinians.  I wish that I could say the situation has improved following the “disengagement.” In truth, it has got worse.

Mahmoud al-Neirab has been recognized as Gaza’s best football player for the most recent season and has represented Palestine at the international level.  In August 2014, Israel attacked the al-Neirab family home in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. Mahmoud’s mother Arwa and three of his sisters – Ibtisam, Duha and Ola – were killed.

“I can’t describe how it feels to lose your mother,” said Mahmoud, now aged 27. “But it never stopped me from following my dream. I have dedicated every goal I scored after that to my mother.”

Mahmoud is a member of the Khadamat Rafah football team, which qualified for this year’s Palestine Cup Final against Markaz Balata from the occupied West Bank city of Nablus.  Held in Rafah at the end of June, the final ended in a 1-1 draw. A rematch was, therefore, scheduled to take place in Nablus several days later.

The Palestine Football Association requested that 35 people representing Khadamat Rafah – including the team’s players – be allowed travel through Erez, the military checkpoint separating Gaza and Israel, for the replay. Yet the Israeli army only granted permits to four people on the list, just one of whom was a player.

Most of the permits were rejected for “security reasons.” Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, claimed to have information “linking most of the teams’ members with terror,” according to press reports. That allegation has been described as a “big lie” by Jibril Rajoub, chair of the Palestine Football Association.

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