Red card for apartheid

Palestinian flags fly at soccer match
Palestinian flags fly at soccer match
Photo credit: Twitter/@Liam_O_Hare

A crippling Israeli blockade on Gaza has left football fans in the besieged enclave with little to no hope nor breakthrough to attend the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar this year.

Imposed in 2007, Israel’s siege has been a major obstacle for Gazans for more than 15 years. With more than 2 million Gazans facing strict measures that severely impede their movement, Gaza has been described as the largest open-air prison in the world.

This year’s Qatar World Cup will kick off from 21 November to 18 December. As the first such FIFA World Cup tournament to be hosted in the Middle East, Qatar 2022 is a highly-anticipated event for most Arabs in the region, in particular Gazans who are facing an added obstacle due to Israel’s apartheid.

Consequently, an exponential increase in travel demands to Qatar among Gazan fans is expected.

However, illegally imposed restrictions on the Gaza Strip – part of a range of measures in the ongoing Israeli apartheid – meaning Gazan football fans can’t even venture out into the West Bank to watch football matches in stadiums.

Palestinian players under the Palestinian Football Association also face similar bitter impediments by Israel, which requires an official permit from teams before travelling to play in any football games.

As hopes and dreams to attend the World Cup in November reign high, Gazan fans are more likely to face the ongoing nightmare of Israeli violations, chief of which is the fundamental right of travel.

Football enthusiasts and brothers Mohammed (31), Mahmoud (22), and Ali Abed (14) said with the World Cup effectively on home ground, it’s time for Palestinians and Arabs alike to take to the stadiums.

“We watched the Brazil 2014 World Cup under the Israeli attack and the Russia 2018 behind the screens, it is now the time to be among the fans and cheer up loud in the stands.”

FIFA has always stood by its position on building a safe environment for all fans and players around the world to secure their freedom to move and travel.

However, this was not the case for the Palestinian national football team who were unable to complete their squad before their World Cup qualification against Singapore in 2007 due to Israel’s refusal to allow them exit from Gaza.

The Palestinian Football Federation lodged an appeal to reschedule the match but was shocked by FIFA’s decision to decline this and award Singapore a 3-0 win. This is in itself a prime example of why FIFA has to be condemned for upsetting the delicate balance of the national football teams and violating the Palestinian national football team’s rights in particular.

On the other hand, the so-called Israeli national football team safely play international football in stadiums built in our Palestinian homeland, while Israeli fans enjoy watching football matches and safely travel to stadiums to support their favourite teams. They face zero obstructions, zero obstacles and zero impediments.

No doubt, such ease will be afforded to Israelis keen on travelling to the World Cup in Qatar while Gazan fans face the tough dilemma of living under Israeli apartheid.

“Instead of being awarded for all the efforts I exert, I am punished by a blockade that kills me and my dream of signing my first professional contract like the foreign players I always see on social media,” Gazan football player, Khalid Abuhabel says.

In contrast with Khalid’s dream, European football has welcomed a bunch of Israeli players like Benayoun and Hemed, both of whom had previously relished an experience in the Premier League.

More recently, FIFA’s discrimination has shown unmatched sympathy and support of Ukraine, going as far as suspending Russia from all football activities after it launched an invasion a mere months ago.

Meanwhile in Gaza, 15 years have gone by with FIFA turning a blind eye to brutal Israeli violations against Palestinians. With all eyes on FIFA in the Middle East, now is the time for a clear explanation from the global football governing body as to why no action has been taken to tackle Israeli provocations against football fans under its occupation.

Over the past years, FIFA has pressurised Qatar to ensure that the beautiful game is accessible for all without discrimination – and it is time now for FIFA to stick to their own values.

The world must know why FIFA proclaims measures to protect players and fans while overlooking the plight of those in Palestine.

FIFA must now review its agenda to balance out any and all discrimination that has for years prevented football in Palestine to truly flourish. This includes supporting the Palestinian Football Association and facilitating ease of travel and movement for all fans worldwide, including Palestinians.

The footballing body must also dive deep into efforts to help Palestinian players, fans, and managers unveil themselves as professionals to the entire world of football. Working on establishing football academies, building stadiums, and engaging heavily with the Palestinian football community should be a top priority for FIFA to develop the beautiful game in the region.

As the three Abed brothers stated, all of whom are avid football fans, “the brilliant Gazan fans, who are now shrugged off and deprived of their normal right of watching football in stadiums, will one day roar like lions in full forests.”

This should be expected in Qatar, which is expecting some 1.5 million visitors from around the world to attend the FIFA World Cup – a historic and monumental event for the entire Arab and Middle East region.

As Gazan football fans, we truly believe this World Cup will go down in history as one of the most remarkable and unique editions of the tournament, and it is only right that we, as fellow Arabs, are given the same opportunity to attend.

Football enthusiasts from Gaza should be given FIFA permits that can be used to pass Israeli checkpoints and borders. As the countdown to kick-off accelerates, we call on the government in Doha – a staunch and vocal supporter of the Palestinian people – to take this pressing issue up with FIFA as a top priority.

No doubt, when the whistle is blown in Qatar this November, FIFA banners calling for equality and an end to racism will unravel in the stands. But as long as the world allows Israeli aggression, violation and discrimination against Palestinian fans to continue with no repercussions, these global campaigns will go down as mere facades.

This article first appeared in Doha News and is published here with permission.

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