From the first day of its announcement, the friendly soccer match between the Egyptian Olympic team and the Palestinian national team faced opposition from Egypt s politicians, parliamentarians, the press and the public. Playing the Palestinians in Al-Ram, a city near Jerusalem, would have meant, critics cried, a form of normalization with Israel.
So loud was the hue and cry over the game that Egypt s National Sports Council (NSC) had to call it off.
The NSC never gave an official explanation for the cancellation of the match, originally scheduled for March 28. But let us count the reasons: recent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in Jerusalem; an Israeli decision to include two mosques in the West Bank on a list of national heritage sites; the entry of Israeli police into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied Jerusalem; and continuous measures by Israel to desecrate Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site to Muslims.
There was also the logistical and moral dilemma of Egyptian players landing at an Israeli airport with their passports having an Israeli visa. To many, this would signal our acceptance of Israel s occupation of Jerusalem.
Stoking Egypt s fire was the occasion of the visit: part of planned celebrations marking Palestinian Land Day, which falls on March 30 and which commemorates the anniversary of the all-out strike staged in 1976 against Israel s expropriation of vast tracts of Palestinian land for settlements and security purposes. That decision led to the death of six Palestinians and left 100 others injured in the clashes that ensued.
Despite all the misgivings expressed by Egyptians, and they are not minor concerns, the game should have gone on. For one, the Palestinians were the ones who invited us, not the Israelis. Why turn down an invite from our neighboring kin? Israel would like nothing better than for Arabs to stay away from Jerusalem to continue judaizing Jerusalem. So what do we do? We oblige.
As for the passport problem, an Israeli visa could have been issued separately, on a piece of paper clipped to the passport, not indelibly stamped in it. Once the players returned home, all they needed to do would be to detach the paper and throw it in the garbage or keep it as a souvenir.
If there were concerns about the team s players and accompanying officials having to deal with Israeli authorities, the preparations and arrangements for the visit was to be carried out by their Palestinian counterparts. The president of the Palestinian Football Federation (PFF) had promised to facilitate all the administrative issues regarding the entry of the team. Thus, we would have been dealing with the PFF and not the Israeli Football Federation.
It seems that we sometimes do not know who or what we are dealing with. The visit had been approved by the Egyptian Football Association. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry had been notified of the proposed visit after the Egyptian FA and its Palestinian equivalent made the necessary arrangements, but the ministry was apparently not directly involved. Our guess is that Egyptian officials were sleeping on the job, at first accepting the invitation but then backing down in the face of domestic protests – protests that were sure to fly. One would imagine our officials would have known beforehand the backlash the game might have caused but they were caught flat-footed.
And shouldn t there be some sort of pre-stated policy position concerning playing in occupied Palestine? It s either a yes or a no from the start. It cannot be yes, then no.
The answer should have been yes. The occupied Palestinian territories are not covered by Arab boycott resolutions targeting Israel. So why make up a new resolution? If anything, there is dire need to communicate with the Palestinians and to do so on their land. Holding the game would have been one way of supporting the Palestinian people and their legitimate cause. It would be a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians in the face of the occupation.
We should reject attempts to boycott Palestine because of Israel. Israel and the West are already boycotting much of the Palestinian territories, allowing nothing in or out. In essence, we are now guilty of the same practice.
Even though Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, anti-Israel sentiment still runs high in the country. The death and destruction being suffered by Palestinians at Israeli hands makes such feelings wholly acceptable, understandable and justifiable. Any Egyptian walking down the street rejects normalization with Israel in any shape. Egypt s Press Syndicate, citing one example, has banned contacts with the Israelis since 1985.
However, from a holistic perspective, the game should have been played. Acceptance of the invitation to play the Palestinian team should not be interpreted as recognition of Israel and its occupation. We would have been playing the Palestinian team on Palestinian land, not Israel. We are an Arab country, meeting another Arab country, playing on Arab land which is occupied.
Jerusalem is not pat of Israel, no matter how hard and how long Israel disputes this fact. Israel illegally annexed the city, a move never recognized by the international community. A soccer game played in Jerusalem will not imply recognition of Israel s control over the city. It will not change the status of Jerusalem or make the city Israel s capital.