West Bank Football Team To Play in Gaza For First Time in 15 Years

A West Bank football team arrived in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to play in the territory for the first time in 15 years after Israel permitted the team's entry, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) has confirmed.

The two-leg Palestine Cup final sees Gaza's Shejaia pitted against Al-Ahly from the West Bank city of Hebron, the first match to take place between teams from the two territories in Gaza since 2000. The second leg will be played in Hebron on August 9 and the winner will proceed to play in the Asian Football Confederation Cup.

Al-Ahly were expected to arrive in Gaza on Monday but travelled on Wednesday when they were after being authorised by Israeli authorities to travel. Palestinian officials told Reuters that the delay was caused by Israel attempting to block the West Bank team's entry into Gaza but that Israel had acquiesced after the PFA protested to world football body FIFA about Israel restricting access to the coastal enclave.

Up to 10,000 fans are expected to pack into Gaza's Yarmuk stadium to watch the historic match between the two top Palestinian clubs, respective cup holders in both of their territories. Israeli territory separates Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

In a statement to Newsweek, Abdel Majeed Hijeh, secretary-general of the PFA, lauded the match between teams from both territories as an achievement that would "be engraved in the memory of our people."

"We were able to record a victory that we should pride ourselves on, despite all criminal acts by the occupation against Palestinian sport and athletes," he said. "This is an accomplishment that would not have been possible without the insistence and the wisdom of [PFA President] Jibril Rajoub and all components of the sport family around him."

"(Rajoub)He considers this incident as a national celebration. This game holds a very noble message, not just as a match, but it emphasises the right of representing Palestine," he added. "It embodies a tangible reality that the Palestinian sport family was able, with pride and ability, to rise above the division that does not serve the occupation."

The West Bank team was reportedly allowed into the blockaded territory as part of the deal for the Palestinian FA to withdraw its proposal for the suspension of Israel from FIFA in May over alleged violations of international law. The motion to suspend Israel's FA was amended at the last moment after it became clear that it did not have enough support to pass through the FIFA Congress.

Dave Zirin, sports editor at U.S. magazine the Nation and expert on Palestinian sports affairs, says that the fact that the teams can finally play a game of football after 15 years should highlight the restrictions of the occupation, as opposed to it being celebrated.

"I think that the mere fact that this is a celebration should be a point of education for so many people, particularly in the West, who only have the highly cursory idea of what the reality of life really is in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he says. "In what is supposed to be the outline of a future Palestinian state, you can't even have the teams from the two regions travel back and forth to regularly play each other in a game."

Palestinians argue that not only does Israel restrict the movement of its football teams but it also attempts to stifle Palestinian sports in other ways. Last November, Israeli forces raided the PFA headquarters in the occupied West Bank and, in the same month, Israeli forces reportedly shot two Palestinian football players in the feet on their way home from a training session, leaving them unable to play ever again.

An online petition to have the membership of the IFA revoked until Israel "observes international law" in its dealings with the Palestinians was created last year and has amassed over 20,000 signatures.

An Israeli spokesman declined to comment.