Football final cancelled as Israel denies Gaza team travel permit

Israel refuses to let players from Gaza's Khadamat Rafah club travel a few kilometres to play in the occupied West Bank.

    Twelve people from the Gaza club's 35 members, just five of whom were players, were granted permits [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]
    Twelve people from the Gaza club's 35 members, just five of whom were players, were granted permits [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

    The Palestinian national football club championship has been called off after Israel denied travel permits to Gaza players who had hoped to face off with their opponents in the occupied West Bank.

    Israel on Wednesday refused to let players from Gaza's Khadamat Rafah club travel a few kilometres through its territory to play Nablus's FC Balata in the central West Bank.

    The two million Palestinians living in the narrow coastal enclave of Gaza must request permits from Israel to travel to the West Bank.

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    Israeli officials have not given a public explanation on why the permits were rejected.

    Media reports quoted Israeli security sources as saying the team members were believed to have alleged links to "terrorism".

    Only 12 of the Gaza club's 35 members were granted permits, with just five of them being players, the team said.

    'Terrible feeling'

    Wednesday's FIFA-recognised Palestine Cup in the West Bank city of Nablus had already been postponed from July, when 31 of the Gaza club's 35 players were denied permits, the team said.

    The winners of Wednesday's game between the Gaza and West Bank Cup holders would have represented Palestine in the Asian Champions League, a qualifier for the FIFA Club World Cup.

    "It's a terrible feeling after training so hard," said Ahmad Abu Thuhair, a Gaza footballer whose application was rejected.

    An Israeli court on Monday upheld a decision from COGAT, Israel's military liaison to the Palestinians, to deny the Gaza players permits.

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    "Each permit application received by COGAT is individually and thoroughly evaluated, pursuant to the criteria that are published on COGAT's website and subject to security checks," COGAT said in an email, without providing further details.

    It referred additional questions to Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service, which did not respond to a request for comment.

    'Separation policy'

    Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinians' FIFA member association, accused Israel of trying "to paralyse Palestinian players and even the [Palestinian] sport system in general".

    Gisha, an Israeli rights group which petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to challenge COGAT's decision, said the case illustrates what it called Israel's "separation policy", which it says "violates Palestinians' right to freedom of movement".

    Gisha and other rights groups say the restrictions drive a wedge between the Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank and the occupied East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek to unite for a future state.

    Israel captured and occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. It withdrew its settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, but has placed the coastal enclave under a blockade after the rise of the Hamas in 2006.

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    SOURCE: Reuters news agency