In so many ways, Gaza and the West Bank seem to be drifting farther apart. Recently, though, one place where Palestinians have come together is on the pitch – that is to say, the soccer field. In fact, the Palestinian national team has emerged as “a rare point of unity for the fiercely-divided Palestinian factions.”
At the heart of the harmony around the national team may be soccer’s revitalization in Gaza. Some of the best Palestinian soccer players are from Gaza. But until recently, the professional league there had been in dire straits. When Hamas took control in 2007, it also took control of the league, including the 16 teams sponsored by Fatah. Competitive soccer in Gaza came to a standstill. The so-called “beautiful game” wasn’t so beautiful anymore; it was just gone.
The game, though, did not lose its popularity and months of negotiations between the two factions took place to resolve the rift. As a result, in perhaps a “baby step toward Palestinian reconciliation,” Hamas and Fatah agreed to restore the league earlier this spring, placing the 16 disputed Fatah teams under a joint Fatah-Hamas committee, and the Gaza league finished its first full season this summer. Not only are the fans happy, but it also sends a positive message. Said the head of soccer in Gaza, “We know we can’t solve all of the political problems, but maybe soccer will bridge the gap.”
So too, other soccer-related initiatives that took shape this past summer supported this progress by using the game to expand horizons for Gazans. With the 2010 FIFA World Cup as an impetus, the United Nations Development Program sponsored a “Gaza World Cup,” in which 16 Gazan soccer teams, represented different international countries that were competing in the actual World Cup. Overall, the cup involved 400 players – 200 Palestinian nationals and 200 from other countries – allowing Gazans to interact with different people of different backgrounds. This is particularly important given the age demographics of Gaza. As a recent National Public Radio report showed, nearly three-quarters of the population is under the age of 30, yet many have never had the opportunity to experience life outside of the 140-square mile strip. The isolation has, in turn, inspired indifference. But if soccer can, even in a small sense, help to shatter the some of the misconceptions that exist and create a new environment with more opportunities and more optimism, it may the groundwork to write a better, alternative narrative for the future.
Professional soccer in the West Bank came back into form in 2008. But recently, coinciding with Gaza’s revitalization, similar efforts are taking place in the West Bank, using soccer as a lens onto the wider world. This August, a week-long soccer camp sponsored by the Soccer for Peace organization brought together 40 kids from the West Bank town of Jenin and 40 Arab-Israeli and Israeli kids. At the camp, participants also visited new places, such as going to the seashore for the first time. And on the entertainment front, a new drama on Palestinian TV called “The Team,” centered on a fictional soccer team as it depicted the challenges of daily life in the West Bank “with a strong inclination toward resolving those problems creatively and peacefully.”
A game where you can’t use your hands is certainly not the silver bullet for a major foreign policy challenge. But soccer does provide an important prism through which to look at the situation in the Palestinian territories, primarily because the sport has managed to transcend the difficult realities of the political situation. With continued progress, over time, relationships built on and around the pitch could relay into healthy impacts off the pitch. And as a new round of peace talks gets underway, how Palestinians get along on the pitch may tell us a lot about the prospects for a future state – and a stable peace.