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Soccer in the firing line: Gaza Cup final

By James Montague, CNN
  • 5,000 Palestinians turn out for a rare football tournament in Gaza City.
  • Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh turns up to award the cup.
  • The league was suspended after Hamas seized Gaza's top sports clubs.
  • The Palestinian FA blames the military wing of Hamas.

Gaza City, Gaza (CNN) -- Terrace crowds are controlled by men wearing army fatigues and holding Kalashnikov rifles, players and press pray on the pitch at half-time and when the final whistle is blown, the trophy is handed to the winning captain by one of Israel's most wanted men.

Welcome to soccer, Gaza style.

More than 5,000 fans crammed into the Palestine Stadium in Gaza City for what is an increasingly rare occasion these days: a game of soccer.

The "Gaza Dialogue and Tolerance Cup final" between Al Shate (a mixed team of Hamas and Fatah members that represents the 80,000 strong Al Shate refugee camp) played Al Salah Islamic Association (a team aligned with Hamas) in a tight match in front of raucous fans who flew blue and yellow flags and fired off flames from lit cans of hairspray in support of their side.

However, as with most things in the Gaza Strip, war, politics and internal divisions are never far away.

The beautiful game is inordinately popular in the tiny strip of 1.5 million people. The Palestinian national soccer squad has no less than 15 players representing Gaza and over the past 50 years dozens of teams have flourished, each with its own affiliation to different political groups.

The main problem lies with Hamas. When Hamas hands back the clubs to their legal board of directors, sport will be running again in Gaza
--Ibraheem Abu Saleem

Even Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh -- the de facto Palestinian prime minister who is a high-profile fugitive from Israeli authorities -- has a soft spot for the game.

In his youth he was a talented, no-nonsense defender for Al Shate, his home neighborhood. To underline the importance of the match, designed to promote harmony between political factions, Haniyeh turned up to present the cup.

But since Hamas, a militant Islamist group, seized control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007, soccer has been brought to the brink of extinction.

Hamas did more than take over Gaza's political and economic apparatus. They also took over all of Gaza's top sports and soccer clubs.

"We as sports people want to remove sport from politics but politicians on both sides, Hamas and Fatah, play on this, they try to make politics come into sport," explained Ibraheem Abu Saleem, vice president of the Palestinian Football Association [PFA] and the man in charge of the game in Gaza.

"The main problem lies with Hamas. When Hamas hands back the clubs to their legal board of directors, sport will be running again in Gaza as in the West Bank."

Angered by the political intrusion in sport, the PFA, based in the West Bank, refused to organize a league until the teams were handed back. Hamas declined and the football league has been dormant ever since the putsch.

Instead the clubs have been left to organize their own small, increasingly irregular tournaments. The best players simply left for the West Bank, but since Israel's war in Gaza last winter, that exodus has been halted due to movement restrictions.

In comparison football in the Fatah-controlled West Bank is thriving. The league was non existent three years ago. Now Palestinians turn up in huge numbers to matches, sometimes attracting as many as 15,000 fans. Private businesses have poured money into sponsoring their favorite teams and a new stadium was built on the outskirts of East Jerusalem to host the Palestinian national team's first ever home international last year.

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"Here in the West Bank we have two members of Hamas on the board. We have teams for Hamas, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]," said Jibril Rajoub, President of the PFA, a former National Security Advisor to Yasser Arafat and a leading member of Fatah recently elected to the Fatah Central Committee. "There is a wall here between politics and factionalism in sport [in the West Bank]. I think the same should happen in Gaza."

Back in Gaza, Al Shate and their non-aligned fans left the happier, securing a 2-0 victory. But for the players, stuck between Hamas and the PFA, it was bittersweet.

"The takeover of the clubs is the main reason for us not having any competition and I want Hamas to give the clubs back," agreed Hamada Shbair, the winning captain of Al Shate and a Palestinian international who hasn't played for the national team since 2008 because of Israeli and Egyptian travel restrictions.

Shbair celebrated along with thousands of fans who carried their cup from the stadium back to the camp in procession. It was the first silverware in a quarter of a century for Al Shate, who have so far escaped the Hamas takeover.

But Shbair used the victory to make his views known to Haniyeh during the presentation of the cup. "I told him: 'You used to be a player, please solve this problem of the players quickly.' He replied: 'I hope so, Inshallah (God willing).'"

Gaza's football-mad population may have to savour Al Shate's victorious cup campaign for a while yet as no one knows when, or even if, the next competition will take place. But for Shbair, victory has sent a powerful message to his people.

"The Beach Camp [Al Shate] is very crowded, 80,000 people, and we wanted this team to make people happy after the war and the martyrs and the siege," he said. "But this club is also open to all people in Gaza. So it is a victory for moderation."