Saudi football team criticised for occupied West Bank match

Activists decry kingdom's decision to request permits from Israeli government for match against Palestine in al-Ram.

    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, centre, poses with the Saudi Arabia national football team in occupied West Bank city of Ramallah [Thaer Ghanaim/EPA]
    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, centre, poses with the Saudi Arabia national football team in occupied West Bank city of Ramallah [Thaer Ghanaim/EPA]

    Saudi Arabia's national football team has faced off with Palestine in the occupied West Bank, a break in the norm for Arab sport teams.

    Historically, Arab countries have played against Palestine in a third country, in order to avoid applying for Israeli permits to enter the country.

    Tuesday's unprecedented game, a double qualifying match for the World Cup 2022 and Asia Cup 2023 tournaments, ended in a 0-0 draw at Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in the town of al-Ram, north of occupied East Jerusalem.

    Saudi football authority said it had agreed to play in the West Bank for the first time at the request of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

    Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestine Football Association, thanked the kingdom and dubbed its move "historical", while Yasser al-Mashal, Saudi Arabia's footballing chief, expressed gratitude towards the PA for its warm reception of the national team.

    "I am here representing more than 20 million Saudis," al-Mashal said. "I have visited many countries but I did not feel this level of love, appreciation and welcoming except in Palestine."

    Palestine v Saudi Arabia: 2020 FIFA World Cup Asia qualifiers
    Saudi Arabia played in the occupied West Bank for the first time at the request of the Palestinian Authority [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

    Condemnation

    Palestinian activists, however, decried the Saudi team's arrival to the occupied territories as an act of normalising relations with Israel.

    In a statement last week, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement acknowledged that under its own standards it did not technically consider the visit to be blatant normalisation, pointing out the difference between applying for an Israeli permit to enter the West Bank and applying for an Israeli visa for Israel.

    Translation: Damn the Saudi national team and those who invited them.

    However, the movement said that at this particular time, it can only regard the visit "in the context of normalisation", citing a decision by the Saudi team in 2015 refusing to enter the country.

    "In the context of the dangerous official normalisation of the Saudi regime - along with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and others - with Israel and the growing normal security and political relations between them, [the visit] is part of the attempts to liquidate the Palestinian cause through the so-called Israeli-US deal of the century," the statement said, referring to Washington's long-delayed plan for peace in the Middle East.

    "The Palestinian National Committee for Boycott also affirms its condemnation of the types of sports normalisation represented by some Arab countries hosting Israeli sports teams in international and regional championships, most recently in Qatar and the UAE, thus defying the Arab popular boycott of the occupying power," the statement added.

    'Raise the Yemeni flag'

    Palestinian activists meanwhile called on football fans who attended the match to raise the Yemeni flag to express their solidarity with the country's population suffering from the effects of a deadlocked war between a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition and Houthi rebels, now in its fifth year.

    Translation: Raise the Yemeni flag at the Palestine-Saudi match before you raise the Palestinian flag.

    Translation: Good luck to the Saudi and Palestine teams, God willing they both lose.

    Using the Arabic hashtag "Normalisation is treachery", Palestinians also expressed their anger at the Saudi team's visit on Monday to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem under the protection of Israeli security forces. Several Palestinians protesting against the visit to the site were arrested, according to local reports.

    Translation: I am Palestinian. And you are not welcome in our country by way of the occupier. But once Palestine is liberated, we will welcome you with our hearts and homes.

    Translation: Israeli occupation forces arrest Maath Muhammadi in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque after he objected to the Saudi team entering it.

    Sports and politics

    For his part, Rajoub, the Palestinian football chief, praised the Saudi team and government, saying it confirmed Riyadh's support of the Palestinian cause.

    "We have succeeded - with the support of everyone - to make sport not related to politics," he said on Monday, according to the official Wafa news agency.

    "We hope that sports will stay away from politics."

    Observers, however, said his comments appeared to be at odds with past actions - Rajoub over the years has spearheaded a number of international campaigns urging world football's governing body FIFA to ban Israeli teams who are based in illegal settlements in the West Bank.

    In 2018, he was banned by FIFA for one year due to "inciting hatred and violence" against Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi, as part of Rajoub's unsuccessful campaign to stop the national team of the South American country from playing against Israel.

    Last month, Israel - which controls the movement of occupied Palestinians - refused to issue travel permits for the majority of players of a team from the besieged Gaza Strip who had hoped to travel the short distance to the West Bank for a match.

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

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

    At the time, Rajoub accused Israel of trying "to paralyse Palestinian players and even the [Palestinian] sport system in general".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News