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Palestinian soccer team claims emotional first Asian Cup win to reach knockouts as war rages in Gaza

The Palestinian national soccer team reached the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time after beating Hong Kong 3-0 on Tuesday in a Group C match filled with emotion from the players and the roars of a sympathetic crowd.

The victory, the team’s first ever at the Asian Cup, confirmed their spot in the round of 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams at the tournament in Qatar.

Forward Oday Dabbagh was the hero at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha, grabbing two goals either side of a header from fellow attacker Zeid Qunbar.

The historic sporting moment for Palestinians comes as Israel’s war against Hamas following the group’s October 7 attacks rages in Gaza, causing widespread destruction and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Deaths of Palestinians in the West Bank have also surged at the same time.

Throughout the game, the 6,500-strong crowd in Qatar roared for the Palestinian side and at the final whistle players broke down in tears of joy. Defender Mohammed Saleh, who was born in Gaza, could be seen sobbing and kneeling on the ground, his face buried in the grass.

Some Palestinian players have reportedly lost family members, or have relatives trapped in Gaza, and have spoken about the difficulties of playing while not knowing what’s happening at home.

Many of those in the stands in Qatar waved Palestinian flags or held up keffiyeh scarves to show support for the team. Although keffiyehs are worn across the Middle East, in recent decades they have come to be identified in particular as a symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance.

The small Persian Gulf state has played a key role in efforts to mediate deals to free hostages taken by the Hamas attacks in Israel, as well as evacuate foreign nationals from Gaza and get aid into the enclave.

Fans react in the stands during the Palestine v Hong Kong match in Qatar. - Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Fans react in the stands during the Palestine v Hong Kong match in Qatar. - Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Palestine coach Makram Daboub praised his players following the match, calling them “heroes.”

“Congratulations to the people of Palestine for qualifying into the next round. I want to express my gratitude to my players, they were heroes today,” Daboub said.

“With a strong team spirit, our ambition is to advance far in this tournament. Now, with nothing to lose, we will give our best. We have demonstrated hope and I believe we can maintain this focus for the upcoming matches.”

Also through to the Asian Cup round of 16 for the first time is Syria, who beat India 1-0 on Tuesday, a result hailed as a “dream come true,” by coach Hector Cuper.

Syria will face Iran in the next round, while the Palestinians’ next opponents have yet to be confirmed.

Mohammed Saleh from the Palestinian national team in action with Hong Kong's Everton Camargo at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on January 23, 2024. - Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Mohammed Saleh from the Palestinian national team in action with Hong Kong's Everton Camargo at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on January 23, 2024. - Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Starvation, bombing at home

As the Palestinian team progresses to the knockout stage in Qatar, back home the Israeli military campaign is intensifying in southern Gaza.

Thousands of displaced Palestinians are fleeing Khan Younis as the Israeli military said it has surrounded the city amid further operations west of the area. Medical facilities in the city have been battered amid an Israeli assault in the area, Palestinian health officials said Monday, as the number of people killed in Israel’s siege on Gaza continues to rise.

On Monday, the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said the number of Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks in Gaza since October 7 has risen to 25,295, with at least 63,000 injuries recorded.

The Israeli military’s large-scale bombing campaign in Gaza has been ongoing since the October 7 murder and kidnapping rampage by Hamas gunmen that saw some 1,200 people killed in Israel and more than 250 taken hostage. One hundred and thirty two hostages remain in Gaza. Of those, 104 are believed to still be alive.

Israel’s relentless bombing has wrought widespread devastation, as civilians live with the threat of imminent death – either by an airstrike, starvation or disease.

In Gaza the UN’s emergency relief chief said the war has brought famine with “such incredible speed” as food and water is running out and the health system is “in a state of collapse.” Aid has been trickling into Gaza slowly from two border crossings in the south but agencies have been warning it is a fraction of what is needed.

Up to 1.9 million people, representing 85% of the population in Gaza, have been displaced, some multiple times, since the conflict began, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

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