I have played soccer since my childhood in Gaza. I grew up playing on dusty side streets in the Bureij refugee camp. The sport has given me great joy, and playing as a professional is a job I love. But soccer has also brought me face to face with a harsh international reality: Because Palestinians are stateless, it is at the whim of Israeli officials whether my teammates and I can travel from Gaza to the West Bank to practice and go abroad for international competitions.
Soccer is a beautiful game, but it can be cruel, too — and not just in the near-misses and penalty shootouts. One of the ironies of my professional career is that it has brought me tantalizingly close to Beersheba, the city in southern Israel once known as Bir Saba — an Arab community that was expelled in 1948, my family included.
Today, our players are frequently arrested and detained. Last year, two of our most talented young players were shot and wounded by Israeli forces at a checkpoint. The border police reported that the young men were about to throw a bomb; in fact, they were on their way home from training at our national stadium in the West Bank. According to The Nation, they were both shot in the feet, sustaining injuries that have ended their soccer careers.
Israel has also tried to block players from other countries from entering Palestine to play against us. And during last year’s Gaza conflict, Israeli jets bombed our soccer fields and recreational areas. Israel’s policies have succeeded in making the beautiful game ugly.
The Palestine national team has belonged to FIFA since 1998, but we do not trust the current president, Sepp Blatter, to represent our interests. Past assurances to act have not been honored. He has, in effect, been complicit in Israel’s abuse of Palestinian players: Even last week, he was trying to undermine our call for Israel’s suspension by his shuttle diplomacy with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
He and Mr. Netanyahu are mistaken if they think they can use an international “match of peace” to head off the Friday vote at FIFA’s Zurich congress — even as Israel delayed our players from leaving the West Bank to train in Tunisia. We will choose freedom and equal rights over a public-relations spectacle bringing no substantive change.
There is a powerful precedent for our call for soccer sanctions against Israel. FIFA established the principle of such action nearly 40 years ago, when it voted to expel South Africa following the 1976 Soweto uprising. The discrimination and harassment that we Palestinians face recall the policies of apartheid.
In the past seven years, three wars have been psychologically devastating for our young people. In July, at least eight soccer fans who had gathered to watch the World Cup were killed by a missile in Gaza. A few days later, horror struck again, with the deaths of the soccer-playing Bakr boys, two brothers and two cousins, on a Gaza beach. Terrified Palestinian families took in that there was no safe space where children could simply be children and play.
Until the day that Palestinians and Israelis are equal under the law, FIFA has a moral duty to exclude Israel from the World Cup and European Championships. Israeli officials may punish me for saying so, but it will be only through their exclusion from international soccer that Israeli citizens will realize that the subjugation of the Palestinian people comes at a growing political and cultural cost.
I have been stopped at too many checkpoints, held for too many hours and suffered too long on account of my Palestinian nationality to be silent at this crucial moment. I have dedicated much of my life to excelling at the sport I love, but there are more important things in life than success on the soccer pitch.
I wish to live free and to raise a family in a secure environment where I know that my son is legally the equal of Israel’s Jewish citizens. Whether this is in two states or one is not my principal concern. Equality is.
When Beitar Jerusalem fans are no longer free to chant “Death to the Arabs,” when Palestinian children are treated with the same respect, care and consideration as Jewish children, and when my beloved national team can practice and play without hindrance and harassment, then it will be appropriate for us to hold Mr. Netanyahu’s “match of peace.”
I will be the first to volunteer. But it will be a beautiful game only when all men, women and children in the Holy Land are seen as equals.
Iyad Abu Gharqoud plays for the Hilal Al-Quds club in the West Bank Premier League and for the Palestine national team.