The Heartbreaking Story of Palestinian Football Comes Into Focus, as Israel's Bid for UEFA 2020 Fails

A tribute by Israeli artist Amir Schiby to the 4 children killed on a Gaza beach by an Israeli air strike while playing football

A tribute by Israeli artist Amir Schiby to the four Palestinian children killed on a Gaza beach by an Israeli air strike while playing football

In its latest move, the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement aimed to financially penalize Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land by targeting Israel's bid to host the 2020 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)‘s Championships.

The bid has since been rejected. It remains unclear whether the BDS movement had a hand in this decision, but it has succeeded at highlighting the plight of Palestinian football which, alongside Palestinian sport in general, has repeatedly suffered from Israeli restrictions.

Using football imagery under the ‘Red Card Israeli Racism‘ campaign, supporters of the BDS movement urged UEFA to reject the bid on account of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian football. Red Card israeli Racism had over 17,000 supporters on its page.

Activists Rachel Michelé Green and Nalan Al Sarraj joined the so-called ‘Twitter storm’, tweeting to their respective 9,000+ and 22,000+ followers:

The incident described by Al-Sarraj is the most recent, and perhaps the most notorious, example of the tragedy associated with Palestinian football since it involved the killing of four children of the Bakr family in Gaza on 16 July 2014.

The four Bakr children were playing football on a beach near a row of hotels hosting numerous foreign reporters when two Israeli air strikes hit them. The first blast killed 9-year-old Ismail Bakr as he ran to retrieve a ball and the second killed Ahed, 10, Zakariya, 10 and Muhammad, 11.

Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC recalled the incident:

Almost a month later, friends and family of the four children commemorated the beach massacre with a symbolic football match.

When UEFA announced that the Israeli bid was rejected, the move was taken as a victory by the BDS movement:

Palestinian Football

Due to the physical separation between a blockaded Gaza Strip on the one hand and an occupied West Bank on the other, the Palestine national football team often finds it hard to have all of its players training in one location. This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that, due to Israeli-imposed visa restrictions, the Palestine national team has had to include players of the Palestinian diaspora from as far as Chile and the United States.

Denied access, maimed or even killed, Palestinian football players have lived through it all. To name but a few:

Ziyad Al-Kord, striker for the national team between 1998 and 2006, was banned from traveling and had his house destroyed. Mahmoud Sarsak was imprisoned for three years before entering a hunger strike which led to international pressure against Israel and his subsequent release.

Others were not as lucky as Al-Kord or Sarsak. Tariq al Quto was killed by the Israel Defence Forces. During the 2008-2009 Gaza War, three Palestinian footballers, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe, were also killed.

Being denied exit visa is also a common practice. For example, in October 2007 the Palestine National Team was disqualified during the 2010 World Cup qualifier simply because they were not allowed to attend the match against Singapore.

The list of abuses goes on. In response, FIFA president Sepp Blatter established a task force in July 2013 to address Palestinian concerns. On June 11, 2014, the FIFA Congress decided to form a committee to monitor Israeli violations against Palestinian sports, without actually sanctioning Israel yet.

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