Earlier this month, football clubs from Gaza and the West Bank traveled to face one another in the Palestine Cup for the first time in more than 15 years. Shijaiyah United of Gaza faced West Bank’s Al-Ahly squad, and more than 2,000 fans of both teams alike were in full attendance at Gaza’s al-Yarmouk stadium.
League winners from Gaza and the West Bank were previously allowed to travel and meet for the Palestine Cup; however, this has been restricted by Israel since 2000 due to security risks and concerns. The Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the governing body in charge of Palestinian travel, granted the clubs’ requests.
Prior to the contest, COGAT announced in June that it would be easing travel restrictions to and from Gaza and the West Bank. The change was made to accommodate Palestinians traveling to celebrate during the month of Ramadan. Residents were allowed to apply for travel visas, which allowed them to visit immediate family members. For the first time, bus services and airports were open to transport residents between Gaza and the West Bank.
Upon the team’s arrival at al-Yarmouk stadium, Al-Ahly’s Khaldon al-Halman said, “I am full of honour and pride, this is the first time I have ever visited Gaza and I can’t find the words to describe my feelings.”
Geographically, the two regions are only separated by a few dozen miles, but the match was momentous due to Israel’s strict travel restrictions for Palestinians. The meeting was even more noteworthy considering the recent history and events of just this past year.
Hostilities erupted between Israel and Palestine this past Summer. Throughout the course of the conflict, the United Nations estimated that approximately 18,000 homes and structures of Gaza were destroyed by airstrikes and shelling. The structural destruction has left an estimated 108,000 Gazans homeless.
“We are all coming from underneath the rubble. Every player knows someone who was killed or injured, every player has had their house destroyed,” says Ibrahim Muajib Wadi of Shijaiyah.
For an area that has endured decades of turmoil and violence, the local football clubs have inspired a common pride, and Palestinian unity has blossomed as a result. This has provided hope in a form unavailable anywhere else.
“I support both teams! It’s one country, and both will represent Palestine if they win, It’s a celebration for Palestine, for all of us,” says Mohammed Yahya, a young spectator at the second game of the two-part series final.
The ruling powers, Hamas and Fatah, govern Gaza and the West Bank respectively and are, in theory, striving towards a unified Palestine. Relations, however, have not always been smooth between the governing bodies as they share a history of political gridlock.
This divide has left Palestine separated physically, as well as politically. However, despite the geographic and diplomatic split that currently exists, the politicians’ unification has manifested itself among the people in an unconventional way.
Palestinians are hopeful that the match symbolizes a continued sign of freer movement through Israel. For now, Palestinians are reveling with pride from the ability to support their football teams in person.
While Shijaiyah won the second and deciding match 2-1 over Al-Ahly, the experience provides the people with an invaluable boost to morale and generates a hopeful optimism. In regards to the final score, Wadi understood the contest’s importance, “In the end, the only winner is Palestine.”
– Frasier Petersen