Soccer Under Israel’s Assault

Israel’s bloody attack on Gaza has been unsparing and unceasing. It hasn’t stopped the Palestine Football Association from playing soccer.

Palestinian midfielder Oday Kharoub during the Asian Cup football match between Hong Kong and Palestine in Doha, Qatar, on January 23, 2024. (Giuseppe Cacace / AFP via Getty Images)

As the final whistle blew at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Mohammed Saleh fell to his knees. The Gaza-born defender had just captained Palestine to a historic 3–0 victory over Hong Kong, reaching the knockout rounds of this year’s Asian Cup for the first time. He composed himself before standing and pointing to the number 110, written on his forearm. It had been 110 days of Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza by the time of this victory, during which an estimated twenty-five thousand Palestinian people had already been killed, with a further two million more displaced.

Saleh told media afterward that he “played this match for our people in Gaza and the souls of the martyrs.” His family home in rural Gaza had been destroyed, his family displaced, and many of his friends killed, with news of several deaths coming through while he was at the Asian Cup.

Palestine would go on to lose 2–1 to the hosts and eventual champions, Qatar, though not before Oday Dabbagh, the team’s star forward, put the team up 1–0 in the thirty-sixth minute, finishing with a calmness that belied the struggles the team had survived to even take to the field. Three of the players originally called up to the tournament were unable to leave Gaza to join the squad. More than half of those that did rapidly worked to get back to match fitness, plying their trade for Palestinian teams where competition had been suspended for over three months.

“Under the current situation, [reaching the last sixteen games of the tournament] meant double what it would’ve meant otherwise,” Susan Shalabi, vice president of the Palestine Football Association (PFA) tells Jacobin. “With the devastating war the occupation is waging on the very existence of our people, the fact that the team managed to reach the knockout stage for the first time ever sent a clear message of resilience [and] perseverance.” 

Palestine’s journey to the knockout stages of the Asian Cup stretches far further back than the seventeen days in Qatar and is typified by the resilience and perseverance Shalabi mentioned. The PFA only gained membership to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation in 1998 after multiple applications, granting them the eligibility to compete to qualify for the Asian Cup and World Cup. It would be another ten years before their national team could play their first international match in front of a home crowd, drawing 1–1 with Jordan at the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium. Since 2019, however, they have been forced to play all home international matches outside of Palestine.

The site of that historic match in 2008 played host to last year’s Palestinian League Cup final, which was disrupted at halftime as two armored Israeli tanks entered the stadium, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the stadium and the stands. The attacks left many requiring hospitalization or medical treatment, including Jabal Al-Mukaber’s goalkeeper — part of Israel’s long and consistent targeting of footballers and use of violence to impede the full flourishing and growth of football across Palestine.

The Rafah National Stadium as well as the PFA buildings and twenty sporting facilities were heavily damaged during Operation Cast Lead, with three promising players, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Moshtaha, among the 1,400 killed.

In 2014, while walking home from training, teenage cousins Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya were shot in the legs and feet multiple times by Israeli forces, before being beaten up and having dogs set upon them. Both are unable ever to play football again.

Mohammed Khalil, a striker for Al-Salah, had his career ended and was left struggling to walk again in 2018 after being shot in the knee by a “butterfly bullet,” a form of explosive ammunition banned under the Geneva Convention. His teammate Mohammad Obeid was also shot in both knees by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Football player Mohammad Obeid was shot by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return. (Hassan Jedi / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The ongoing Israeli genocide has now claimed the lives of at least eighty-seven footballers, twenty of whom were children, Shalabi details:

All football infrastructure in Gaza has been either destroyed or severely damaged. Stadiums were used by the Israeli occupation “moral” army, to their eternal shame, as concentration camps where civilians went through horrific humiliation and torture.

West Bank stadiums were not exempt from this systematic destruction: club facilities were destroyed in Nurshams and Jenin refugee camps; players were arrested and shot. Even in East Jerusalem, the occupation’s policy of closing and demolishing clubs’ facilities continues undeterred.

The PFA has now called on FIFA to expel the Israel Football Association (IFA) and “address the unprecedented international human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by Israel.” Expulsion from FIFA would prevent Israel from taking part in the ongoing qualifying rounds for the 2026 World Cup. Such a move has precedent: Russia was disqualified from the 2022 World Cup following the invasion of Ukraine.

“It is the international inexplicable reluctance in taking action that has given the occupation impunity to continue violating every convention. That’s true in every aspect, whether in culture, economy, or sport,” says Shalabi of the vital need for action from footballing governing bodies, whose willingness to allow the IFA to “include in its league racist settler teams located on stolen lands in internationally recognized Palestinian territories has emboldened IFA to continue to violate more rules.”

The shooting of Khalil in 2018 prompted calls for Argentina to cancel an upcoming international friendly with Israel, which they eventually did, though the justification given at the time was “concerns for player safety.” Clubs and countries across Europe have remained deaf to similar calls during the genocide and have continued to fulfill their fixtures against Israeli sides.

“Imagine your neighbor stealing your house and kicking you out and the rest of the neighborhood treating him as if he owned the place. Would this not normalize theft and embolden the thief?” asks Shalabi.

All FIFA members will vote on the proposal at the next FIFA congress, which runs over three days — beginning on May 17, two days after the seventy-sixth anniversary of the Nakba. To mark the date and the ongoing human rights violations in Palestine, the Palestinian women’s national team played a friendly against Irish side Bohemian FC, their first to take place in Europe.

In a reversal of fortunes from the men’s national team, Palestine came from one behind to win 2–1. Germany-based striker Nour Youssef capitalized on a mistake from the Bohemians’ defense to slot in the winner, drawing rapturous applause from a sold-out Dalymount Park. It was an example of what Shalabi explains is the vital role football plays in Palestine as “an expression of our national identity: our yearning to take our place under the sun as a free, sovereign nation just like everyone else.”