x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Bahraini players say no to Palestine football match

Players reject friendly match in West Bank because they don't want passports stamped by Israeli authorities.

MANAMA // A friendly football match between Bahrain and Palestine that is set to take place in the West Bank next month has drawn criticism from parliament, civil society groups and some of the players who say the match amounts to a step towards normalisation of relations with Israel.

Bahraini players and team delegates would have to be approved and have their passports stamped by the Israeli authorities - who control the West Bank's entry and exit points - and that has been at the heart of the controversy. In a blow to those who support the match - among them Bahrain's foreign ministry and the Bahrain Football Federation (BFF) - Egyptian officials indefinitely postponed a similar match last month. The Egyptian Olympic football team postponed the match after it came under criticism from Egyptian members of parliament, and the players refused to play because it was seen as a normalisation of ties with Israel.

Those in favour of the match said it would be a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian people in the face of the occupation. Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the BFF president, said their acceptance of the invitation to play the Palestinian team should not be interpreted as a recognition of Israel and its occupation. "The BFF refuses to recognise Israel. We will be playing the Palestinian team on Palestinian land, not Israel," he said in response to questions raised by reporters amid mounting criticism of the match, adding that politics and religion should not be mixed with sports.

"We are trying to support the Palestinian people through all means. We have a clear position on supporting Palestine and we reject attempts to boycott Palestine because of Israel. The issue should be looked at from a holistic perspective and one should move away from narrow views that do not serve the public interest." Sheikh Salman added that the BFF is co-ordinating with the ministry of foreign affairs to obtain the team's entry into the West Bank via Jordan - if the game is played.

The foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, arguing in support of the game, said the occupied Palestinian territories are not covered by Arab boycott resolutions targeting Israel and that there is a need to communicate with the Palestinians on their land. "Holding the game would reflect the Bahraini government's standing policy and commitment to supporting the Palestinian people and their legitimate cause," Sheikh Khalid was quoted as saying by the local daily Al Bilad.

Responding to concerns about officials and the team having dealings with Israeli authorities, Sheikh Salman said the preparations and arrangements for the Bahraini team visit would be carried out by their Palestinian counterparts. "The president of the Palestinian Football Federation [PFF] has promised to facilitate all the administrative issues regarding the entry of our team to play the match. We are dealing with the PFF and not the Israeli Football Federation," he said.

However, that was not enough to convince Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, who heads the General Organisation for Youth and Sports, which oversees the BFF, nor others who oppose holding the game. "Even if the passports of the players were not stamped by the Israeli authorities, the BFF should not justify the normalisation policy because such a visit would still count as complicity [with Israel]," the Islamic Brotherhood MP Naser al Fadalah said in parliament on Tuesday.

He also criticised the foreign minister for pushing ahead with what he described as efforts to normalise relations with the "Zionist entity", which continues to "desecrate" Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site to Muslims, and kill Palestinians. The Bahrain Society Against Normalisation with the Zionist Enemy also criticised the move, describing it as an obvious attempt to normalise relations with Israel, and called on the players to refuse to participate in the match.

"The support for holding the game clearly reveals continued plans by the Bahraini government to impose normalisation with the Zionist enemy on the Bahraini people," the society's spokesman, Abdulla Malik, said. "The Arab governments that continue to march into the quagmire of normalisation and surrender to US and Zionist conditions are trying under various means to convince their people and encourage them to normalise relations with the Zionist entity and fool them by alleging that holding sporting, cultural or technical events in the occupied territories does not reflect normalisation with the Zionists."

Mr Malik also appealed to the players to refuse to participate in the game as other Arab players and coaches have done before, calling on Islamic leaders here to issue edicts in line with those issued by Palestinian Islamic scholars that say any visits to the occupied territories that involve Israel's stamping of the visitor's passport is considered normalisation. Many of the players have also publicly announced that they oppose taking part in the game.

"The team is against playing in the occupied territories. It is against our morals and beliefs, which oppose the occupation and the Zionist entity," said Hussain Ali, one of the team's strikers, who is nicknamed "Bilay" after the Brazilian legend, Pele. "Even if a decision is taken to send the team I will decline to participate. I refuse to have an Israeli stamp in my Bahraini passport." Stoking tensions are the events being held by political and civil society groups in Bahrain marking Land Day, which falls on March 30 annually, to commemorate the 1976 Israeli decision to expropriate large areas 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. Events are planned for today and over the weekend.

The match is set for May 28 and will be played at the Faisal al Husseini stadium in Al Ram, near Jerusalem, and while no final decision has been made yet on whether it will take place, it remains highly unlikely that the BFF would be able to convince the players to take part in it. @Email:mmahdi@thenational.ae