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World Cup, Bet Lahm Live welcomed distractions

While Palestinians take in the World Cup, a new report advocates FIFA sanctions against Israel over actions hampering the growth of soccer in the Palestinian territories.
Palestinians watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup football second round match between Algeria and Germany in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 30, 2014.  AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI        (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

The signage for the Bahamas restaurant in Bethlehem indicates that it sells fresh seafood, a rather tall order for an eatery in a place that has no sea access. The majority of the customers at this outdoor establishment on June 28 had not, however, come in search of seafood. Instead, they were there to watch World Cup soccer match from Brazil and to enjoy a "hubbly bubbly" (water pipe). During the global football event, such scenes can be found all over the Arab region in part because of the high cost of cable TV. The Bahamas restaurant, however, has no ordinary TV.

The owner, Joseph Hasboun, woke one day to the sight of the tall concrete wall built deep inside Palestinian territory and literally in front of his business. Thinking that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade, Hasboun decided to turn this calamity into something positive. Screening World Cup games on the Israeli-built wall has turned his restaurant's location into a political bazaar, with locals mixing regularly with international visitors, tourists and solidarity activists.

World Cup screenings on the separation barrier are not the only example of Palestinian society finding ways to live despite the presence of the occupation and its various manifestations. The Bet Lahem Live Festival, a four-day celebration of music and arts, has become an annual event. Festival organizers dedicated this year's gathering to reviving historic Star Street, which has suffered from neglect since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. During the festival, Star Street — part of the 1,500-year-old pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — came alive with music, art and folklore as thousands of Palestinians flocked to the old town of Bethlehem in solidarity and a show of resilience.

Speaking at the opening of the festival, Sami Awad, director of the festival organizer the Holy Land Trust, said that Palestinians continue to insist on celebrating life in spite of the pain and oppression all around them. Awad told the crowd, “The Bet Lahem Live Festival is not a party, it is a message — from the city of peace and from this Holy Land — saying that the Palestinian people love life.”

Cognizant that the festival was taking place as many Palestinians were suffering, Awad made special mention of Palestinian administrative detainees on a hunger strike at the time. “On this day, we remember the Palestinian prisoners who have chosen through hunger strike to teach us life, for life is worthless without freedom.” Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboon expressed sentiments similar to Awad's when she said that the festival shows how Palestinians are clutching “to their land, culture and folklore and will protect it.”

While watching the World Cup and participating in festivals, Palestinians got some unexpected good news for the future of Palestinian sports. A 1-0 soccer victory over the Philippines two weeks earlier in the Maldives had clinched a spot for the Palestinian team in the Asian Cup, scheduled to take place in Australia in June 2015.

The Palestinian Authority has showered a lot of attention on the Palestinian Football Federation, and the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) leadership has taken notice. Restrictions imposed on the Palestinian soccer team are now prompting the world body toward possibly sanctioning Israel. A 45-page report by Washington-based Nonviolence International and the Palestinian Football Federation details five areas in which the Israelis are restricting or negatively affecting the growth of the sport in Palestine:

  • obstructing the movement of Palestinian players, coaches and officials
  • hindering the delivery of soccer equipment
  • restricting the construction of sports facilities
  • dissuading other teams from visiting
  • violence against Palestinian players

In the press release for the report, Nonviolence International chided Israel for its actions, calling them violations of human rights. “The proactive assaults on Palestinian football will never stop us,” said Mubarak Awad, president of Nonviolence International. “Playing and watching sports is a human right and the whole world supports us. FIFA needs to suspend Israel for its misconduct.”

The report provides details on travel restrictions, especially for players from Gaza, and Israel's ban on building sports stadiums in area C, which is under its security and administrative control. Al-Monitor has learned that members of the Palestinian Football Federation recently received intensive training by Nonviolence International in Ramallah on documenting and reporting Israeli violations to strengthen any formal request for action by FIFA against Israel.

Palestinians’ love for soccer is a powerful sign of a people’s love for life no matter the challenges of life under occupation. The World Cup has given a resilient people a chance to temporarily forget about the hardships of their daily lives and to support their favorite teams with the hope that a Palestinian national team will someday make it to soccer's biggest event.

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