As the World Cup 2014 knockout rounds progressed, the bombs began to fall in Gaza. The latest Israeli campaign against the Palestinians has, as of this writing, devastated homes, schools, hospitals, and has killed over 800 Palestinians – including four boys playing soccer on the beach.
Football holds a special significance for the Palestinian people. In an embattled and occupied land with devastated infrastructure, football is a vitally important outlet for youth; as one young footballer put it, “the only hobby Palestinians have left is football.” Like the Algerian team in the 1960s, the Palestinian national team – which is ranked 74th in FIFA standings (its highest ever) and has just qualified for the Asia Cup – is an important representative for Palestinian national identity, humanity, and dignity within the international community; a powerful way of showing the world that the Palestinian people survive and continue to struggle for freedom.
Perhaps because of this, Israeli forces have especially targeted Palestinian football – kidnapping, imprisoning, killing, and severely injuring players (in two cases, shooting them in the legs), imposing travel restrictions on the national team, and bombing the Palestinian national stadium in 2006 and 2012. Just two weeks ago, nine Palestinian civilians were killed as an Israeli missile targeted a beach where football fans were gathered to watch the World Cup. Since 2010, several international organizations have been documenting the attempts on the part of Israel to destroy Palestinian sport, and have brought grievances to FIFA and UEFA (the European football confederation, of which Israel is a member).
Mahmoud Sarsak, a player for Palestine’s national team who went on hunger strike while imprisoned in Israel, said that “Israel works endlessly to repress Palestinian football, just like it does many other forms of Palestinian culture…There can be no place in football for segregation and oppression.” Sarsak, like many Palestinian footballers, citizens and their allies, continue to speak out against Israeli occupation and oppression, and stand up for the freedom and dignity of the Palestinian people.
Solidarity with the people of Gaza! Free Palestine!