From the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are pinning both sporting and political aspirations on their national football team as it prepares for its Asian Cup debut in Australia.
For many Palestinians, sporting prowess is just as important as political and diplomatic moves to achieve statehood with the national team viewed as a part of the national “resistance” – dubbed “Al-Fidaee” after the militants who fought Israel in the decades after its establishment in 1948.
“Sport is still an important weapon in politics,” said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as he greeted the 23-man squad at a ceremony to mark their departure for the tournament.
The Palestinians have made some inroads towards achieving statehood, winning the rank of observer state at the United Nations in 2012, but have struggled to gain full membership.
FIFA, however, recognised the Palestine national team in 1998.
Following a diplomatic blow last month when the UN Security Council rejected a Palestinian-drafted resolution seeking to set an end date for the Israeli occupation, all eyes are now on Al-Fidaee.
The team, ranked 115th in the world, will kick off its Asia Cup campaign against Japan on January 12 after qualifying for the first time.
Placed in Group D, Palestine will also play Jordan and Iraq over the coming fortnight.
“This is a historic occasion for us as it is our first Asian Cup,” striker Ashraf al-Fawaghra told the FIFA.com website.
“Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward, despite the difficulties facing us. We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop,” the 28-year-old said.
“We want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.”
Palestinian players face difficulties in getting to and from tournaments both at home and away due to tight Israeli restrictions on movement, and some have been arrested or imprisoned.
An international under-17s tournament hosted by the Palestinians in 2013 was delayed after Israel refused to grant entry visas to some Arab players, and the competition went ahead only after pressure from FIFA and UEFA.
Some Palestinian players have even been killed, including Gaza football legend Ahed Zaqqut, 49, who died during a deadly 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants last year.
SPORT AND POLITICS INSEPERABLE
For Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajub, a leader within Abbas’s Fatah party, the beautiful game has a unique status for Palestinians.
“For the rest of the world it’s just sport — cups, medals, and so on. But in Palestine, it’s part of the project for liberation, a political project,” he told AFP.
“The Palestine team, which is playing against the biggest teams in Asia has — despite the occupation, the blockade (on Gaza), and pressure and repression by Israel — attracted the attention of the media and the international community,” he said.
Using football terminology to further the Palestinian cause, Rajub has regularly urged FIFA to show Israel the “red card” — suspend its membership — over the difficulties the occupation poses to Palestinian sport.
For him and for many others, the raising of Palestinian flags at stadiums across Australia will be a sweet sight after Australia – which is hosting the Asian Cup – was one of only two countries in the 15-member UN Security Council to vote against the resolution.
The other was the United States, Israel’s closest ally.
Palestine, which won last year’s AFC Challenge Cup, was named best national team in 2014 by the Asian Football Confederation.
Its 23-man squad reflects the disparate nature of the stateless Palestinian people — six players play professionally abroad, six come from the Gaza Strip, three are from the Palestinian diaspora and three are Arab-Israelis.
A fourth Arab-Israeli — descendents of some 160,000 Palestinians that stayed in Israel after the Jewish state was established — was selected to play but was unable to join the squad for fear he would have lost his teaching job in Israel.
For now, tensions with Israel will remain far from the pitch because teams from the Jewish state only play in European tournaments.