x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egypt forced to cancel football match in Jerusalem

A controversial match between the Egyptian and Palestinian football teams in occupied East Jerusalem was postponed indefinitely yesterday after its announcement sparked outrage in Egypt.

CAIRO // A controversial match between the Egyptian and Palestinian football teams in occupied East Jerusalem was postponed indefinitely yesterday after its announcement sparked outrage in Egypt. The match, which was planned to mark Palestinian Land Day on March 30, had led to accusations of normalisation of ties with Israel, but what appeared to have caused the postponement of the match were the ongoing clashes between Israeli Arabs and Israeli security forces at Al Aqsa Mosque.

Thousands of Egyptian university students have been demonstrating across the country in protest of Israel's decision to include two mosques in the West Bank on a list of its national heritage sites and the entry of Israeli police into the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. Samir Zaher, the chairman of the Egyptian Football Association, was quoted by the independent daily al-Masry al Youm yesterday as saying that "instructions from above cancelled the travel decision until further notice, due to the last incidents [in Israel]".

The visit was announced at the beginning of the month and the team was originally scheduled to leave for Jerusalem on March 28. "I don't care why the match has been postponed or cancelled, I do care of the final result which is that this shameful match won't take place," said the columnist Fahmy Howeidy. "If the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been suspended, so definitely the match has to be called off," he added.

Howeidy, a columnist with the independent daily Al Shorouk was one of many Egyptian intellectuals who had vehemently opposed the match based on the principle of "normalisation" and because of the recent violence at Al Aqsa and the announcement on the West Bank religious sites. Howeidy described the match as "a scandalous trap" and "a moral and political crime". Ahmed Omar Hashem, the head of the religious committee in parliament, had announced this month that he rejected "the team's visit with Israeli visas, which means recognition of the legitimacy of Israeli occupation of our land and holy sites".

"This match is haram," said Mohammed Abdel Qodous, the head of the freedom committee at the journalists syndicate, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group. About 200 members of the group were arrested over the weekend for participating in pro-Palestinian rallies. Almost 31 years after a peace treaty was signed between Egypt and Israel, normalisation is still a potent accusation and Israel is largely considered an enemy state. Intellectuals and professional syndicates boycott what they consider normalisation and punish members who violate rules against establishing cultural ties with Israelis.

Protesters burnt Israeli flags and called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, forcing the embassy to close during protests in solidarity with the Palestinians. Jibril al Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Federation of Soccer who first proposed the match, was quoted by AFP last month as saying that he discussed the idea with Gen Omar Soliman, the Egyptian chief of intelligence, and with Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister.

Mr al Rajoub defended his idea last month, saying "the visit to Jerusalem does not mean normalisation [of ties] with Israel." Not all Egyptian intellectuals and commentators have taken such a hard line on the Jerusalem match. Amna Nossair, doctrine and philosophy professor at Al Azhar University, had said last week that she supports such visits that break the siege of the holy city and the Palestinian territories.

A call on Muslims to visit Jerusalem last year by Hamdi Zaqzouq, Egypt's religious affairs minister last year, caused an uproar, and was rejected by the sheikh of Al Azhar and Egypt's Christian Coptic Pope. Howeidy, the columnist, wrote that if "Egyptians want to break the siege, they should go to Gaza, not East Jerusalem, where they will also enter without [an] Israeli visa." nmagd@thenational.ae