Palestinians make play at reconciliation with football match

Yahya Hassouna

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Thousands of enthusiastic football fans converged on a stadium in war-torn Gaza on Thursday for a match seen as a symbolic victory over bitter political divisions and an Israeli blockade.

The encounter between West Bank-based Al-Ahli and Gaza's Shejaiya -- their first in 15 years -- was technically to determine who will go on to represent Palestine in international competitions.

Players and fans, however, saw it as much more than a sporting event, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip only 60 kilometres (40 miles) apart but separated by politics and Israeli territory.

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Islamist movement Hamas rules Gaza, which is under a strict Israeli blockade, while the Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas is based in the West Bank.

Attempts at reconciliation between the two Palestinian political factions have proved futile -- but that was not the case for Thursday's football match.

The match which ended in a 0-0 draw was a relief for Gazans from the poverty and destruction surrounding them, especially after last year's war with Israel.

But not everyone could enter at five shekels per ticket ($1.30) to watch the match, played in blisteringly hot temperatures.

Shejaiya hails from an area flattened in last summer's war which destroyed 18,000 homes and left more than 100,000 people homeless.

Even Yarmouk stadium, where the game was played, was partly destroyed by Israeli strikes.

"Shejaiya, Shejaiya, not afraid of death," home fans chanted amid a din of drums and smoke.

But cries of "go Al-Ahli" also rose from the stadium.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip compete in separate leagues, of which the two teams which faced off on Thursday are the champions.

A return leg is to be played in Hebron in the West Bank on Sunday.

- Bringing people together -

For Al-Ahli goalkeeper Azmi Shweiki, "football has succeeded where the politicians have failed. It brings people together."

He said he was "moved by people's smiles despite the living conditions."

Ahmed Mahajni, who also plays for Al-Ahli, was visiting Gaza for the first time, with the coastal enclave largely cut off from the world by the Israeli blockade and a closed border with Egypt.

He said that was "already a victory."

Restrictions on the movement of its players is one of the reasons officials from the Palestinian federation have pushed FIFA, of which Palestine has been a member since 1998, to sanction Israel.

To reach Gaza, the West Bank team had to cross Israeli territory, and the Jewish state had to grant approval for its players to enter the strip.

Once there, captain Fadi Dweik had bittersweet feelings.

"We are happy to be here and at the same time very sad to see the destruction" from last year's war, the third in six years with Israel, he said.

The war killed 2,251 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. Seventy-three people died on the Israeli side, including 67 soldiers.

"We saw in the media the damage from the war, but to see all of that for yourself, it's another feeling -- much stronger," Dweik said.

He called the match "a message of hope sent to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

Shejaiya president Salah Harazallah said: "The aim of this match was to break the blockade imposed on Gazan sport, and it was achieved when Al-Ahli entered Gaza."

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