Donald Macintyre: The decision to prevent the Palestinian Under-19 team from playing
in Britain is a blow
Independent, Monday, 27 August 2007
It's an irony that the boys from the Palestinian Under-19 squad are intently watching
a recording of last Wednesday's England friendly against Germany at Wembley on the
Al-Jazeera Sports channel when we arrive. If they are feeling any sense of Schadenfreude
at seeing the home team go down 2-1, team-mates Abdullah Sada, Muhammad al Ashram
and Muhammed Asdudi are far too polite to show it. Yet they could be forgiven for
uninhibitedly cheering the visitors' victory, given the disappointment they have
just suffered at the hands of Her Majesty's Government.
This summer the 22 boys, who have beaten scores of other young club players to be
selected for the Palestinian Under-19s - the majority of them from Gaza - have been
training hard for what would have been, for them, the undisputed highlight of the
past two years, among the toughest in Gaza's turbulent history.
By now, they should have started a three-week summer training camp based at Chester
University, during which they were to have played matches against Chester FC, Tranmere
Rovers and Blackburn Rovers youth teams. Yesterday, they were to have had their first
match, with the Cheshire County FA youth team. It was to have been a friendly in
three half-hour segments with rotating substitutions so everyone got a game. It would
have been followed by a joint dinner for both squads in the evening.
Apart from being a real break from the stifling adversities of Gaza, in which there
are a mere four, only-just-serviceable football grounds for 1.4 million people, it
would have been the ideal way of preparing for the upcoming Under-19 Asia Cup qualifiers
in Uzbekistan, as Khaled Abu Zahir, a Gaza sports journalist who was helping to organise
the British tour, explains. "This was a good recognition of our team, but it was
also a big advantage for us. There is nowhere in Gaza to have a training camp like
And finally, the boys had high hopes of going to at least one match in the English
premiership, which they follow ardently - like many tens of thousands of other Gaza
football fans - on TV.
But last week they were told by the British consulate's office in Gaza that all the
players had been refused visas to enter the country. The players were flabbergasted.
"Of course, we went crazy," says midfielder Asdudi, 18. "We were all frustrated.
We were ready to travel. We were two months training for this. To go to Britain was
a great opportunity for us."
Asdudi points out that the three-times-a-week training sessions were not even interrupted
by the Hamas-Fatah conflict which culminated in more than 100 deaths in the five
days of savage infighting in mid-June that left Hamas in control of the streets.
The squad trains at the ground in Deir El Ballah in central Gaza - chosen to minimise
the costs for players travelling from as far north as Beit Hanoun and as far south
as Rafah - and on (swelteringly hot) afternoons because the ground, of course, has
no lights. "Nothing stopped us training, not even the clashes," Asdudi says, "and
a lot of us were doing exams at the time".
Even in a place inured to bad news, the British ban came as a shock. "We never expected
problems like this," Mr Abu Zahir says. "But the thing we were not afraid of happened."
What caused even more consternation than the refusal were the reasons for it. While
the letter sent to the players did not say so, British officials have said - to among
others Rod Cox, the enterprising Chester businessman who runs Chester and Palestine
Exchange and whose brainchild the visit was - that the grinding poverty of Gaza was
one of the reasons for the ban. The calculation, according to one official, was that
given the lack of opportunity in Gaza at present, and the fact that the players were
themselves unmarried and therefore without wives and children to return to, they
might be all the more tempted to remain in Britain when the training camp was over.
It's hard therefore to escape the conclusion that the squad were caught in a kind
of geopolitical catch-22. Living in a territory whose poverty and record unemployment
levels have been markedly increased by a boycott which Western countries - including
Britain - have imposed on it since Hamas won the elections in January 2006, 22 boys
who have determinedly striven to make something of their lives in the most difficult
of circumstances now find that very poverty is a reason for restricting their freedom
even further. Partly, it is just another aspect of the vicious circle in which Gaza
- and especially Gaza youth - finds itself. But the boys, all of whom come from large,
close-knit families, laugh spontaneously at the idea that they might abscond in Britain
- even supposing they had the slightest idea how to build a life there.
Asdudi, an articulate, first-year accountancy student at Gaza City's secular Al Azhar
university, has three brothers and five sisters, and whose dream is to be a PLO diplomat
when he graduates, says: "It's ridiculous. Of course, I am going to come back. I
am not going to run away from my homeland. We want to play football, to represent
our country. Our goal is to bring Palestinians in the disapora back here, not to
leave ourselves." Pointing out that many of his teammates are coming up for their
last high school years and all important pre-university exams, Asdudi, who like his
two friends has played for Palestinian national teams abroad before - and come back
- adds: "Believe me, a lot of the players would have been taking their school books
with them." Not to mention that all of them are now focused on representing their
country - Israel permitting - in the Asia Cup in November.
Mr Abu Zahir, himself a former top club goalkeeper in Gaza, believes the ban misunderstands
the culture of Gaza, including the closeness of family ties and the central importance
vested in education by Palestinians. True, the boys are not yet married with their
own children but they are deeply embedded in family life: parents siblings, cousins.
"You have to understand the tradition here," he says. Pointing out that the Palestinian
Under-15s are currently on a tour of Norway, he says that no young or adult footballer
travelling in a national team out of the country - and these are sides that because
of the conflict usually have to play their home games in Qatar or Jordan - has ever
failed to return. But perhaps the privations of the past two years have made it a
more tempting prospect? "Tell me when Palestine or Gaza have ever been calm," he
On the face of it, what is remarkable about the boys is precisely their refusal to
limit their ambitions despite the relentlessly unpromising conditions. "I have a
future here," says full-back Sada, 17, pointing out that he wants to go on to university
in Gaza after his upcoming last year in high school and - eventually - become a journalist.
"Things are difficult now but God willing they will get better."
The refusal letter the squad received fully accepted that the camp's British organisers
were "funding the trip in its entirety, including air fares, transport and other
accommodation. Instead it raised what is arguably another catch 22 - the failure
of the squad to provide "evidence" that Israel would allow it out of Gaza, and more
importantly perhaps, back in. With no co-ordination between the de facto Hamas administration
in Gaza and Israel that would have been, to put it mildly, difficult. But Mr Abu
Zahir was optimistic that the emergency Palestinian government in Ramallah would
have got permits from Israel for them to go in and out through the Erez crossing
- as other Palestinians have been allowed to do in the past two months - and that
it would have been all the easier if the British visas had been granted.
The British consulate in Jerusalem says that is "very sorry that it wasn't possible
to give visas for what is a worthwhile cause," and adds that "in other circumstances"
the football camp might well have qualified, as several other projects involving
Palestinians have done, for help from the Foreign Office's "Engaging with the Islamic
And indeed there is no sign that the consulate visa section, which operates under
oversight from a regional HQ in Istanbul, was doing other than carefully operating
within the detailed criteria laid down under the Rules in the 2003 Nationality, Immigration
and Asylum Act. The question is rather whether the denial of a project like this
suggests that the criteria are themselves too inflexible.
Mr Cox has no doubt that fostering projects like this is a way - among other things
- of helping young Palestinians resist the lure of the armed militias. "The first
idea was to improve Palestinian football," he says, "and help the Palestinians to
present themselves as a state". A second was to bring them in contact "as a beacon"
with mainly Muslim ethnic minority groups from Halifax and Liverpool to London "who
are hostile to British foreign policy and feel disenfranchised". But a third was
as a "reward" for the boys "working so hard" to rise above "tremendous pressures
where the lack of hope and prospects make young people an easy target for any groups
that want to make use of them."
Neither he nor Mr Abu Zahir have given up and both hope the tour can be reinstated.
So does Abdullah Sada, who adds with a grin: "Tell them in Britain we promise to
come back to Gaza." For that to happen, it will surely need the Government presided
over by Raith Rovers' most famous fan to take a fresh and sympathetic look at the
2003 immigration rules as they apply to hard cases like the Palestinian Under-19s.
PSC PRESS RELEASE: PALESTINE NATIONAL YOUTH FOOTBALL TEAM REFUSED VISAS TO UK
The British Government has refused to issue visas for travel to England for the Palestine
National Youth Football Team. The team was due to arrive today (21st August) for
a three week tour of the UK. Visas were refused both to Palestinians living in Palestine,
and refuges domiciled elsewhere. The official reason given for refusing the visitors
visas is that the Palestinians are too poor to be trusted to return home.
Clearance Officer at the Jerusalem Consulate said “The refusal has been taken at
the highest level in London. It is in line with current immigration policy”.
Cox, the organiser of the tour that would have seen the Palestinians play, Chester
City, Tranmere Rovers and Blackburn Rovers, as well as undergo an intensive 3 week
training course and visit Asian community football projects said;
“The decision is
incredible. Only a few months ago the Foreign Office was considering funding this
scheme under the ‘Engagement with Islam’ programme. They recognised that the positive
nature of engaging people in sport both in Palestine and in the UK helps to keep
young men out of the hands of the gunmen. But the ‘Engaging with Islam’ programme
has been completely terminated, and no grants will be given this year. This tour
is supported by the English FA; the Professional Footballer’s Association and was
undertaken in Partnership with the University of Chester. Specialist Coaches gave
their time freely, and literally hundreds of people have helped.”
He goes on to say,
“The tour has support groups in Halifax, Bradford, Leeds, London and Liverpool as
well as Blackburn and Chester. It is also financially supported by Islamic Charities
such as Interpal and Friends of Al Aqsa as well as the official bodies, and they
all saw it as abridge building exercise. Now I cannot see any other outcome than
an alienation of all these people from the British Government as a result of this
decision. If even I think that this result looks like a racially motivated decision
that helps to perpetuate Israeli Control over Palestinians then I am fairly certain
that this is the message that will seep through to Britain’s 2 million Muslims’.
It is particularly galling that on the 8th September the Israeli National team will
be in the UK to play England without needing visas.”
The guiding principle of the
tour was defined by the words of the American born striker for Palestine Morad Fareed:
is one of the very few institutions that Palestine has to compete, to show our statehood,
to be on the world stage”
The tour’s main purpose was to express this sense of nationhood
for Palestine in the UK and is called “Palestine - Something to Cheer About” According
to Rod Cox, “Stopping the Tour is therefore an insult to the whole nation of Palestine”
International is also offering support to this cause. Nancy Dell’Olio, Chairman says:
“The tour is a perfect example of disparate cultural groups working together to use
the energy and camaraderie of football to positively introduce different cultures
to each other. The search for excellence and the focus on improvement gives many
children in impoverished circumstances a reason for living, and it definitely works
to take children away from violence and guns, things they pick up when they have
nothing to do, and all hope taken away from them. This decision of the British Government
will be seen in Gaza, where most of the team originate, as siding with the enemy.
To refuse a national team admission solely on the grounds that they are too poor
and deprived to be trusted to visit the UK will not do Britain any good abroad. The
lives of these boys, who have worked so hard to achieve the position they are in,
are just being thrown away."
Nancy Dell’Olio will continue to show her support by
attending a fund-raising dinner for the absent team at Chester Town Hall on the 1st
September. The visit has also attracted support from the following VIPs, The Bishop
of Chester, Alexei Sayle, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, and Marcel Khalife, a Unesco
appointed 'Artist for Peace' who lives in Texas and performed at a sell-out gig at
the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in July 2007.
The Palestine Football teams have been
dogged by bad luck and lack of support from those in power; in 2005 the Israelis
prevented the Palestinians competing in Football, including detaining players in
Gaza during a world cup qualifier. They also prevented the entire team leaving Gaza
for an Asian Cup qualifier against Singapore in 2006, and locked the team out for
over a month after they competed in Jordan in June this year.
The effects of this
refusal are catastrophic for the organisation. Even if the team were able to come
at a different time, it may be impossible to accommodate them, since the principle
partner, the University of Chester, will not have the accommodation available in
term time, the League teams have needed a very considerable lead time to commit to
the matches in a busy schedule, and the coaches, all of whom were giving their time
voluntarily, will not be available.
Mark Steel: Oi! Referee! That footballer's Palestinian!
What are we doing banning a touring team from Gaza because it is 'too poor'?
Independent, Wednesday, 22 August 2007
We're used to stories about footballers' excessive wages, in which a star insists
he won't sign a new contract unless he's given a planet. And then when the club backs
down, he complains he's only been given Venus, which isn't fair as Didier Drogba
got the much bigger Saturn.
But this week the trend reached a new depth. Because the Palestinian youth team,
mostly from Gaza, was due to begin a three-week tour, playing against teams such
as Blackburn Rovers, Tranmere and Chester. But on the day they were due to arrive,
the British Foreign Office announced none of them would be granted a visa, the reason
given that they were "too poor".
Too poor? Has the Foreign Office replaced immigration officials with doormen from
a gentlemen's club? So instead of asking people at customs to show their passport,
they look you up and down, then say, "I'm afraid sir, there is no admission into
Britain without a tailored suit."
The Foreign Office originally backed the tour, saying it would "help to keep young
men out of the hands of gunmen". Still, if only the footballers were rich Arab gunmen,
sent by Saudi Arabia, they'd not only be allowed to play Blackburn, they'd probably
There will inevitably be suggestions from the Israeli government that the tour was
a propaganda exercise for terrorists, despite the places they were due to play at.
But you can imagine an Israeli statement claiming, "We have evidence that Blackburn
Rovers is a front for terrorist activity, and we understand the half-time team talk
by Mark Hughes goes 'We need to battle hard in midfield, and we can get the winner
if we launch a merciless Holy Jihad against the infidel Arsenal flat-back-four'.
And as for Chester, they might as well call themselves Hizbollah Wanderers and be
done with it."
But it might be harder to explain why the tour was also backed by an organisation
called Truce International, whose chair is Nancy Dell'Olio, the glamorous partner
of Sven. Or Nancy Dell'Al-Zaqari HamasIntifadaOlio as she's probably known by Mossad.
She said, "To refuse admission solely on the grounds they are too poor to be trusted
will do Britain no good abroad."
How rancid do you have to be to make Nancy Dell'Olio sound like a campaigner from
Liberty or Amnesty International? Perhaps it's a game, and their next test is to
get Rolf Harris to say, "Gaw blimey, I've seen some imperialist running dogs of oppression
but this Foreign Office takes the biscuit."
Or maybe this is all just practise for the English strategy to win the next World
Cup. Within a couple of years almost every decent foreign footballer in the world
will be playing here in the Premier League, then just before the tournament starts
we'll refuse visas to all of them and give ourselves a chance. But most likely is
simply that the Foreign Office has been leaned on by the Israeli government to refuse
entry to the team. Because the Israelis do have a record here. In March last year
they bombed the only football stadium in Gaza. And it wouldn't be surprising if,
just for extra nastiness they contracted Multiplex to rebuild it.
And during the Asia Cup, which the Palestinian national team had started with an
8-0 win, the Israelis detained the five players who came from Gaza so they couldn't
get to their match against Uzbekistan. This suggests the latest incident is simply
part of the process of petty vindictiveness that occupying forces often dish out.
Even if there's no obvious military or political advantage to be gained, you can
imagine them passing a law that no one in Gaza is allowed to hum, or on Mondays everyone
has to speak in a Geordie accent.
Even more annoying for the residents of Gaza, for over a year they've been under
siege, the hospitals have run out of essential medicines, there's no electricity
and hundreds of thousands are trapped there, unable to visit family or complete their
education if it means leaving the occupied area. The justification offered often
comes down to how Palestinian organisations refuse to recognise Israel's right to
Yet the Israelis seem so determined to refuse Palestine's right to exist that they
won't even allow them a football team. So what will they allow? Would they let them
take part in the Eurovision Song Contest, or would they get the Foreign Office to
refuse them entry on the grounds they were "too loud"? Would they let a Palestinian
puppy enter Crufts, or would it be refused a visa for being "too frisky"?
So the Palestinian footballers are left with two options. The first is they're calling
on people to send a message to the Foreign Office, at King Charles Street, London
SW1A 2AH, asking for the decision to be reversed. Or they could organise their next
tour to play against Scotland. Then even if they're not allowed to turn up they'll
still win three-nil.