GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) Divided politically and geographically, Palestinians made strides toward unity with the first football match between a West Bank club and a Gaza Strip team in 15 years on Thursday.
Gaza’s Shijaiyah United played Hebron’s Al-Ahly to raucous cheers in a packed stadium. The match ended 0-0.
Israel restricts the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the local league’s teams were under the same limits, meaning teams from the Palestinian territories hadn’t faced off for years. Israel approved Al-Ahly’s entrance into Gaza following a request, according to Cogat, the Israeli defense body that handles civilian issues with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians are also cleaved politically, with rival factions in the separate territories repeatedly failing to reconcile. The game offered a sense of togetherness for the crowd.
”Today is a Palestinian national day of happiness. It’s an emphasis of the unity of the land and people,” said Abdul-Salam Haniyah, a Palestinian sports official.
The winners of the Gaza and West Bank leagues used to meet for the Palestine Cup until Israel began restricting their movement in 2000.
Israel has come under criticism from the Palestinian Football Association for restricting the movement of players and, in May, the Palestinians threatened to get Israel suspended from FIFA because of the measure, although they withdrew that attempt. Foreign players and officials have also encountered problems entering the separate Palestinian territories.
About 2,000 screaming fans – an overwhelming majority of them supporters of the home team – filled the concrete benches at al-Yarmouk Stadium, where the eastern terrace is being rebuilt after being destroyed by Israeli airstrikes 15 years ago. Dozens of riot police were deployed to prevent any violence.
”I hope that (Al-Ahly) will win, but whoever wins they are all Palestinians,” said Nader Abu Turki, a former West Bank resident living in the Gaza Strip since he was released from an Israeli jail in a 2011 prisoner swap. ”There should be no borders between Gaza and the West Bank.”
The teams will play in the West Bank on Sunday. The winner will be awarded the Palestine Cup.