For the first time since being recognized by FIFA in 1998, the Palestinian soccer team on Monday competed in a major international competition when it played at the at the Asian Cup in Newcastle, Australia.
Despite the outcome of the match — a 4-0 drubbing from a much more talented Japan — Palestinians cheered their team’s appearance as a victory in itself, as the team and its players had to overcome significant obstacles just to be there.
The team’s athletes — who come from Gaza and the West Bank, as well as from the Palestinian diaspora — often struggle just to find a place where they all can meet for practice because of Israeli restrictions on movement for Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Last year they won the AFC Challenge Cup to qualify for the 16-team Asian Cup in Australia despite difficulties in arranging training camps, matches or even gathering their best players.
Israel regularly detains players at border crossings before matches or practices — six national players were held by Israel last year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. And last year, Israeli forces at a checkpoint fired multiple shots at the feet of two Palestinian teen soccer players on their way home from training. The soldiers, according to Palestinian news service Maan News, released dogs on the players and then beat them with rifle butts. Doctors later told Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, that they would never be able to play soccer again due to the severity of their injuries.
In 2009, while traveling from his home in Gaza to the West Bank for a soccer match, national star Mahmoud Sarsak was detained by Israel and held for three years without ever being charged. In 2012, Sarsak spent 92 days on hunger strike in protest of his detention. He was eventually released on July 10, 2012.
Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril al-Rajoub has previously demanded “the expulsion of Israel from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee” for its alleged systematic targeting of Palestinian soccer.
Israel cites security concerns for restricting movement between Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self-rule.