Khobhi K. A. Williams

Football Divided: The case of the missing Palestine Cup

Investigating how the absence of Palestine’s biggest domestic trophy fractures community cohesion in the Arab nation.

Shabab Rafah celebrating their Palestine Cup win in 2017 (Palestine Football Association/ Facebook)

The FA Cup quarterfinals were in full-swing a couple of weeks ago with some exciting games taking place. Manchester Utd had a comeback victory against a nine-man Fulham, both Brighton and Manchester City thrashed Grimsby Town and Burnley to move on comfortably and lastly, Sheffield Utd reached their third FA Cup Semi-final in a decade with a last-minute Tommy Doyle beauty. A weekend like this reminds us all why the FA Cup is so special because whether you are as big and mighty as Both Manchester clubs, or a loveable underdog like Grimsby, there’s always a possibility that your local team could go to Wembley to prove they’re the best team in England. The same can’t be said in Palestine, a country where borders not only limit the movement of people, but also limit how football is played professionally.

Palestine is a country separated into two territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Both areas only share 6,000 km2, which is smaller than Jamaica, but Palestine has over double the population of the small Caribbean Island. The West Bank and Gaza border Israel, and for a century Israel and Palestine have been engulfed in a long-standing conflict over who has the right to the holy land. Political partitioning and violence have led to the current landscape of both these states; however, football has been a force for good in Palestine. Since their integration into FIFA in 1998, Palestine’s national team competes internationally, and they have also created their own domestic league. The land divisions of Palestine can also be seen in their footballing structure. Both the West Bank and Gaza have their own premier leagues for their top tier teams, yet for 20 years the Palestine Cup united Palestinians from the territories towards footballing glory. The competition saw the winners of the West Bank and Gaza Premier Leagues play two legs to determine which team was the best team in Palestine. Although supporters from one territory couldn’t go to their away legs because of travel restrictions, these games were a symbol of national pride. In a 2018 Copa90 documentary ahead of that year’s final between Hilal Al-Quds and Shabab Khanyounis, an Al-Quds supporter description of his club emphasised that “it represents the Palestinians and those who have left Palestine. It represents us sportingly, culturally, socially”. This means that football acts as a civic symbol of unity in a fractured society.

However, in September 2019, the Palestine Cup Final was cancelled by the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) over ‘security concerns.’ This decision may seem like an unfortunate circumstance that was a one-off occurrence, however, since that decision the competition hasn’t returned. Furthermore, this isn’t the first time that Israeli forces have blocked Palestinian football games, as during the Second Intifada both leagues were suspended for seven years. The league’s absence affected the Palestinian FA so negatively that their membership with FIFA was almost revoked but it was reinstated in the 2014/15 season with the Palestine Cup format mentioned earlier. Although concerns over security were the determining factor for the 2019 final’s cancellation, little explanation was given about what they were and who were at risk. Israeli human rights groups have accused the Israeli government of blocking the final to obstruct nationalist sentiments in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian football has been growing exponentially since 1998 with the national team ranking 93rd in the FIFA world rankings and winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2014. Their emergence in football undoubtedly brings more Palestinians together and a positive perception of Palestine does have the potential to threaten Israeli policy in the territories. Regardless of if the decision of blocking the 2019 final was a strategy of Israel to mitigate Palestinian nationalism, what is the justification of the Palestine Cup’s absence today?

This is especially relevant because of the recent political unrest happening in Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judicial system. This includes policies that weaken the Supreme Court’s powers and grants the government the final say on all judicial appointments. Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant lost his job for voicing his concerns about how these policies threaten the country’s democracy and his sacking exemplifies a fraction of decisions from a nation descending into an uncertain future. In terms of football, Israel’s blocking of the Palestine Cup arguably fails to comply with the UN’s International Convention against apartheid in sports. FIFA should consider how to bring Israel to account. For instance, apartheid South Africa were banned from the organisation because of their regime against native Africans, should similar sanctions be placed on the Israeli FA for their government’s treatment of Palestinian sporting bodies?

Football is so popular that most times it is taken for granted. However, at its core football is about unity. The unity of a team, a club, a community, a town, a city, a region, a country, and a planet. It is unfortunate to know that people in a nation are being denied the chance to unite through football because of the decisions of an occupying state. The people of Palestine should have the right to play football freely like any other nation. No matter what side of the debate you’re on, the extended blockade of the Palestine Cup is a cause for concern, and all football fans should stand against it.


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