Football players from the Gaza Strip were able to exit the coastal enclave Wednesday for the return leg of a match being seen as a symbolic step toward Palestinian unity, officials said.
Israel strictly controls the Gaza border, and the second match between the Strip’s Shejaiya and the West Bank’s Al-Ahli had been postponed over a dispute involving security checks on some of the Gaza players.
Both Israel and Palestinian officials confirmed that the Gaza team crossed the border into Israel on the way to the occupied West Bank, and that the game was set to be played in Hebron on Friday.
Gaza, ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas, is under blockade by Israel, which fought a devastating war with the group last summer. It is separated from the West Bank by 60 kilometres (36 miles) of Israeli territory, and Gazans are subject to rigorous border restrictions.
Shejaiya players visited Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, after crossing the border.
The initial leg — the first match between the two clubs in 15 years — was played in Gaza Thursday and ended in a goalless draw.
West Bank and Gaza Strip teams play in separate leagues, in which Al-Ahli and Shejaiya emerged as champions. The winner will be eligible to represent Palestine, a member of FIFA since 1998, in international competitions.
The match was initially set for Sunday, but was postponed after Israel asked four members of Shejaiya’s 37-member delegation to submit to security interviews as a condition of leaving Gaza.
The Palestinian Football Association and Shejaiya club categorically refused.
However, on Wednesday, Israeli authorities questioned three players for two hours before allowing them to exit Gaza, according to the association’s Ismail Matar.
The West Bank is run by the Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas, and attempts at reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions in recent years have proved futile.
But the matches were being seen as symbolic victories over the bitter political divisions and the blockade.