Ittihad al-Shijaiyeh team members Mustafa al-Dawer, Khairi Madi and Maisera al-Boab. Image Credit: Supplied

Hebron, West Bank: “It was a dream come true to see Jerusalem and our holy and beautiful Al Aqsa Mosque,” said Mustafa Al Dawer from Shujaiyeh in Gaza City.

“This was my first trip to the West Bank. When we crossed from Gaza, through the Erez border post, into pre-1948 Palestine, the team was so excited. I was crying and smiling at the same time,” Al Dawer, an anaesthetic technician from Gaza’s European Hospital, told Gulf News.

What would have been an ordinary event in any other country took on enormous significance for Palestine football. The ability to travel freely around their country.

Under enormous international pressure the Israeli regime finally allowed Gaza’s Ittihad Al Shujaiyeh team to travel to the West Bank to take part in the Palestine Cup football final on August 15 against Ahli Al Khalil in Hebron.

Ahli Al Khalil beat Ittihad Al Shujaiyeh by two goals to one, qualifying them to represent Palestine in forthcoming international matches.

The first leg of the qualifying cup final took place in Gaza earlier when Ahli Al Khalil travelled to Gaza, in a match against Ittihad Al Shujaiyeh, which saw neither side score any goals.

“This was the first time in 15 years that football teams from Gaza and West Bank could play each other,” Palestine Football team manager Salah Al Jabari told Gulf News.

Israel tightened its siege on Gaza in 2000, when the second Palestinian Intifada broke out against Israel’s occupation.

Israel’s severe restrictions, allegedly on the grounds of security, has crippled the movement of people and goods between the two Palestinian territories, preventing Palestinian football players from being able to play rival teams.

“Israel’s ‘security restrictions’ also stopped us from being able to import football clothing. Our players are also regularly stopped and delayed at checkpoints in the West Bank for long periods making the teams late for matches,” said Al Jabari.

“This has affected the morale of the players and made it enormously difficult to keep up playing standards.

“Additionally, some Gazan players who are already based in the West Bank have not been able to travel back to Gaza and visit family and friends,” added Al Jabari.

This situation would have continued indefinitely had it not been for the intervention of the International Football Association (Fifa) several months ago.

The organisation put political pressure on Israel, warning that unless the restrictions on the Palestinians were eased, Israel risked being kicked out of the organisation, something the Palestinians had lobbied for.

Intense negotiations between Fifa and Israel continued until the last minute. The cup final in Hebron was meant to be played a week earlier than the August 15 date but Israel claimed a number of the Gaza players represented a security threat.

However, the Gaza team was eventually allowed to travel following Fifa’s intervention but not before three members were held for three hours at the Erez border post and interrogated by Israeli security.

Maisera Al Boab was one of three players from the Shujaiyeh team who was questioned by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shabak.

“They asked me questions about my friends and family, our political associations, and our opinions on politics,” Al Boab told Gulf News.

The team faced further problems when they tried to pray in Hebron’s historic Ebrahimi Mosque.

“The mosque was closed to Muslims for the day and only open to Israeli colonists because it was a Jewish holiday,” Al Boab explained.

Nevertheless despite the difficulties it was a great adventure. The players told Gulf News about their experiences, adding they couldn’t wait to share their stories with their friends and families back in Gaza, most of whom are unable to leave Gaza and visit the West Bank.

For Khairi Madi, 25, who works in food production, it was his second visit to the West Bank.

His first visit was in 2008 in a private capacity. He later attempted to enter with the football team in 2013 but Israel refused the team entry.

“Praying in Al Aqsa Mosque was a wonderful experience although it was somewhat spoiled because of the tensions between radical Israeli colonists touring the mosque and Palestinian worshippers,” Mahdi told Gulf News.

Al Dawar found walking around occupied Jerusalem’s old city invigorating.

“The sights, smells and sounds, and seeing people from all around the world were something I will never forget,” said Al Dawar.

The boys also made comparisons between the West Bank, ruled by the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Authority (PA), and Gaza under the rule of the Islamist organisation Hamas.

“I found the West Bank more beautiful than Gaza,” said Madi.

Al Dawar said he noticed the strong differences between the accents of Gazans and West Bankers. “The weather in the West Bank is better and the houses are also bigger and better than most of the homes in Gaza,” Al Boab told Gulf News.

“The food in Gaza is better and we have more freedom because we don’t have Israeli colonists living there and harassing and attacking us all the time like they do in the West Bank.”

The players also feel hopeful about the future of Palestine football. However, there are still difficulties on the horizon.

“Problems between Fifa and Israel, and Israel and the Palestine football team are still not over. Negotiations over other points of contention are continuing,” said Al Jabari.

(Mel Frykberg is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah)