- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — It has been more than three decades since any grass has sprouted on Gaza City’s Yarmouk soccer field.

But playing in the sandlot became appreciably sweeter last week as the first round of the monthlong Gaza soccer tournament got under way there.

After Israel’s reopening of Gaza Strip roads this month, local residents are relaxing for the first time in years.

Weddings are being held outside and diners are returning to restaurants. For sports fans in Gaza — soccer-crazed like most of the world — that means getting down to the business of crowning their first champion in three years.

Clad in green jerseys with an insignia of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock printed on the chest, the starters from Gaza City’s Islamic Society huddled near midfield to pump themselves up with chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).

Opposite, in red jerseys, stood the underdogs. The squad from Beit Hanoun, a farming village in northeastern Gaza, could manage only one practice before the tournament because the Israeli army had been patrolling the town for seven weeks on the lookout for Palestinian militants.

The team lost most of the little financial support it had after the army razed the groves of farmers who were supporting it. So players paid their own way. Sitting out the tournament altogether could have meant the team’s dismantling.

“We don’t really care about the result,” said Ibrahim Za’anin, 29, a midfielder for Beit Hanoun whose brother was killed during an Israeli incursion in the town. “The challenge is that we have to continue.”

There is good reason to believe the competition may never be completed. Though the fragile U.S.-led peace initiative and a cease-fire among Palestinian militants have kept the army from returning, almost everyone understands a sudden burst of violence could mean new roadblocks and an end to the 32-team tournament.

But after the 33-month uprising ravaged the economic, political and social fabric of Palestinian society, the soccer tournament reflects a widespread urge to restore some measure of normalcy.

“This competition is like a baby that people have been expecting,” said Khaled Abu Zaher, a sports reporter for the Palestinian daily Al Quds. “God forbid, if the cease-fire collapses, we will go back to the beginning. Soccer is like air for the people.”

With travel in the Palestinian territories choked by Israeli army roadblocks over the past three years, sports clubs haven’t been able to stick to any kind of regular match schedule.

Still, organized soccer matches have continued. To maintain a semblance of fitness, the clubs arranged exhibition matches named after athletes killed during the uprising. Often that meant providing sleeping arrangements near the field for the visitors in case roads were closed. Some athletes found themselves bunking down on the team bus beside Israeli army checkpoints.

Like the boys of Gaza who run barefoot in the street with jerseys of World Cup champion Brazil, Palestinian soccer is impoverished.

In the entire Gaza Strip — home to some 1 million Palestinians — there are only three grass fields. At Yarmouk, pregame time is reserved by the Palestinian police, who use the sandlot to drill cadets in marching because their headquarters was bombed by the Israeli army.

The average player receives only a uniform and medical assistance. The most a club can do for a standout is arrange a day job — an increasingly scarce commodity in an economy with more than 50 percent unemployment.

At stake in the Gaza playoff is the right to represent Palestinians in an international tournament scheduled for October. The winner also would play a champion from the West Bank, but holding a tournament there is still impossible because entrances to most Palestinian cities remain under Israeli army control.

But a measure of national pride is riding on simply completing the competition. Crowning a new champion, even if only of Gaza, means a new Palestinian ambassador to the world beyond the Israeli checkpoints.

“Despite the difficult circumstances, we have to keep playing,” said Sheikhda Abu Taiyeh, who is overseeing the competition for the Palestinian soccer federation. “We want to show that as Palestinians we are still competing.”

Back on Yarmouk field, the first half between the Islamic Society and Beit Hanoun ended in a draw. The shanked kicks by the Beit Hanoun goalie were matched by the Islamic Society’s botched breakaway.

The sparse crowd of a couple of dozen fans yawned.

“This stadium used to be full. The occupation and the intifada reflected badly on our soccer skills,” said Jihad Abu Khinas, 35, whose hands were still white from laying down the field chalk.

The soccer tournament could help create momentum behind the cease-fire, Mr. Abu Khinas said, but only if the Israelis do their part. “You have to offer calm first. Then people will come to the match and only think about the game.”

In the second half, with the out-of-shape Beit Hanoun squad growing tired, the Islamic Society managed two goals and advanced to the next round.

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