Happy Easter, Salaam, Shalom & why I came to Palestine not Eindhoven

Posted by nige on April 9, 2007, 01:58:54 AM

Greetings from the Holy Land at Easter. In the Albert after the Arsenal match the other day,various RaWKites  were asking why I wasn't going to Eindhoven. Well, here goes with my hurriedly-scribbled diary of the last few days. Sorry about the (lack of) formatting but I've had to cut and paste this largely from my e-mail as I have very limited internet access.

So far this season, various football-supporting trips overseas have taken me on fun-packed, boozy trips to Kiev, Eindhoven, Bordeaux and Barcelona - which is more LFC Euro aways than I have ever been able to afford in one season before, thanks to taking  a redundancy payment last Autumn. On the Bordeaux and Barca trips in particular we the highlights were some brilliant solidarity events with the 'opposing' supporters, including  a friendly match with a Barca supporters' team.

But being a football supporter for me personally is about much more than supporting a  great football team. Like an increasing number of individuals and organisations, I like to use football to support causes. Some friends of mine started talking about organising a football tour of Palestine over four years ago, after one of them went on an official visit and started talking with Palestinians at grass-roots level about the possibilities that sport gives for bringing together individuals and groups of people who would not normally come into contact. From the moment I heard about it, I knew I had to be part of it as I have always sympathised with the plight of the Palestinians living under an illegal occupation, but have never until not really found a way of expressing my solidarity about  what they are suffering.

The tour finally came about this year because twelve friends from a pub team in Bristol decided to join the three of us from my own former pub team in Leeds to make a full squad - 15 of us in all. We booked our flights, and here we are. So instead of being in Eindhoven with my mates enjoying one of Liverpool's best ever Euro away results on Tuesday, I was on the first day of a mind-blowing tour, touching down in Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon to watch the Champions League highlights on TV in a cafe there.


On our first day in the West Bank, we have mainly meetings, tours & discussions with Palestinian organisations and local people, so there's no official footy yet.  But we were having a kick-around with some local kids on the waste-ground between Israeli army checkpoints, when one of the
young teenagers noticed my Liverpool badge. I'd had to bring an LFC training shirt without 'Carlsberg' written across it of course, so it would be 'swappable' or 'giveable away ' in a Moslem country, so the boy hadn't noticed the Liverpool badge until he got up close. 'Eindhoven 0, Liverpool 3' he said in Arabic, and then pointed to his own football socks : they were imitation LFC socks, imported from the Far East with one of those dodgily-drawn Liverbirds that so often looks like a pelican, and the strange abbreviated & distorted motto 'Yul No wk at oe' written across the top ! Most of the kids here seem to shout out the names of Barcelona, Real Madrid & and Man United as the most popular international 'brands' here ;-), but this young man clearly has better taste, even if of course he can't afford the 'official' product. He watches the premiership on TV, and likes 'Gerrard and Crouch'. Good man. I give him my shirt at the end of the kickabout, even though it will be about 5 sizes too big. He is utterly, utterly made up.

Wow, the West Bank has changed since I was last here 13 years ago. Then, in the 'honeymoon period' following the Oslo peace accords, everything seemed optimistic and people went about their business in peace without all these checkpoints everywhere. Everyone is still so friendly and hospitable, but life for them has changed. Back in 93-94 when I was here,  a Palestinian could visit family in another town, or play football there, without having to queue at the numerous checkpoints, which are there to 'protect' the approaching half a million illegal settlers whose fortified towns now occupy some of the key strategic hilltops, as opposed to around 200,000 at the time of my last visit. Back then there were no apartheid roads that only Israelis could use. And of course back then there was no wall. This illegal monstrosity now dominates Palestine now in so many ways, cutting many tens of thousands of people off from members their families and/or their land and livelihoods. And it just keeps getting worse.

It seems clear when you look at detailed maps that amongst the main purpose of the wall ( apart from  surrounding, enclosing, intimidating, cutting off, starving  and demoralising the Palestinian population so that they will change their dream from one of freedom to one of emigration ) is to drive great wedges of separation between Palestinian communities which can be filled with yet more illegal Israeli settlers, giving an excuse for yet more illegal army occupation.   It is often called an 'apartheid wall', but in some ways it is worse than that, as the apartheid regime wasn't trying to drive the indigenous people out of South Africa. 'Ethic cleansing' does seem a more appropriate comparison than apartheid.


We toured the brand new national football stadium near Bethlehem, funded by the Portuguese government, which will be officially opened on April 27th ... but we christened the brand new astroturf with our own unofficial penalty competition, alongside of course the enthusiastic local teenagers. The Israeli wall that runs past the stadium cuts the local village off from its main source of income, its grape fields (it's a largely Christian village, like so many in this area, so they make wine as well as grape juice), and the locals were clearly angry about this, some of them pointing out the land they were cut off from  by taking us up to the top of the main stand. Well, actually it was the ONLY stand.

Next we met the people who run a social, cultural and sports centre in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the Bethlehem area, and interviewed the Vice Chairman of the Palestinian FA about all the difficulties involved in trying to run a football league & a national team in the face of incredible difficulties for the local people in just getting from A to B, whether from one town to another for amateur players, or from any other country to the West Bank for their few internationals. Home international matches are now played in Jordan ... if they can be played at all.

Then finally the moment we'd been waiting for, as we played our first match, against the Ibdaa FC from that same refugee camp and did well to lose just 1-0, despite having our backs against the wall most of the match (quite literally as the Israeli wall was again only yards away). My mate Ben and I played well in defence & did our Leeds pub team proud amongst all these West Country boys! Neither of us is from Leeds originally - Ben is a Reading lad, and of course I'm a Merseysider, so much banter between him & me today about what will happen at the Reading match tomorrow.

But we talk mainly about how knackered we feel already & we have AT LEAST 6 more games in the next 7 days ! Oh well, Ben reckons, hopefully having to have a week off the booze should help our energy levels a bit ....


Visited Hebron Uni, and got whacked by their Palestinian champion 5-a-side team on their home pitch . These 19-22 year-olds ran rings round  our bunch of old codgers (average age 36), for an 11-2 drubbing, despite our constant squad rotation (Rafa eat yer heart out - in an hour we made about 25 rolling substitutions!!)

Then an amazing tour of the old city of Hebron, where a few hundred recent illegal Israeli settlers have managed to cause so many problems that many thousands of Palestinians have been cut off from the rest of their own city and forced to live as prisoners behind a series of heavily-fortified army checkpoints. Many businesses and shops have closed making it seem like a ghost-town; children are stoned by settler children on the way to school to try to provoke them into reaction; the old market is bombarded from the Israeli-controllled buildings above with rocks, stones, rubbish, beer bottles, etc. We saw these missiles which had been caught in protective nets above the ancient market alleyways, and visited empty Palestinian houses 'cleansed' of their inhabitants and then vandalised with militaristic Israeli graffiti, including the memorable line "GAS THE ARABS - JDL" (JDL is an extreme right-wing Israeli organisation)

Male civilian settlers wander round with sub-machine guns. Armoured cars kept stopping as we played on stony wasteground with (not against) the young boys of the old city in an exciting 5-5 draw  ;-)

Falafels, delicious shawarma sandwiches, salads and dips for dinner as we discuss the day's man-of-the-matches and 'taxi' moments of the day, then plan the next day's adventures ...

Heard the English footy results as we went to bed. Reading 1 Liverpool 2. Ben not impressed, Nigel
'over the moon'.


Unexpected bonus from the Easter Bunny, highlights of the Reading match on an Arabic satellite station at breakfast time in our flat. Yippee!! Ben even less impressed. Then a Rio own goal to add to the delights. Much mirth all round.

Visit a secondary school, and play 4 separate 15-minute 8-a-side games in the concrete playground against various age groups and their teachers. We win 1-0, draw 0-0, lose 1-0, lose 1-0. I am an early candidate for the day's 'taxi' award for both (i) coming off when I hadn't been subbed, though I thought I had, and (ii) vice versa in another match. Came on by mistake so we had too many players. Boo ! Cheat ! I blame the lack of a hangover today - I'm not used to playing Sunday footy without one !

While most of the squad tour a youth club and have lunch, 3 of us go to paint a mural on the apartheid wall. Well, 2 of us helped the Bristol team's resident artist (who has painted murals in Chiapas too) anyhow ! I will tell you all about this & show pic's when we  get back. The mural is now there alongside one by famous street artist Banksy. When they dismantle this wall and sell it to tourists one day, like they did in Berlin, maybe our piece will be worth thousands ;-)

We then come back from 2 down to draw 2-2 with the Palestinian National Electricians' XI on the HUGE rocky pitch by the wall. I play the whole match with the paint from the mural on my shirt, hands and feet. Mark gets man-of-the-match as our midfield maestro artist, and then does a knee ligament late on, OUCH!, while 'Taxi' of the day goes to a different Mark, our goalie this time, for watching the beautiful sunset while 6 attackers bore down on his goal ... he saved it anyway, and dislocated his finger in the process. OUCH AGAIN !!

TOMORROW, MONDAY, THERE'S NO FOOTY !! Good job 'cos we don't have 11 fit players left standing at the moment!! So we're going to tour Jerusalem, with special focus on communities who are divided by the wall and can't even be visited by their relatives on the other side (including even some of their own spouses).

Hopefully more 'diary' will follow, if internet access allows while I'm out here. The prose style is not by best because there are 15 of us staying in this flat in Bethlehem,  so I have to stay up late to get on the lone computer, write e-mails home and cut and paste them on here. Hence the strange hurried formatting too. But I hope this will be interesting and thought-provoking to some of you.

I'll be accused of being one-sided, but the reality of Palestine is not as it is reported in the UK, where the media makes it all out to be about danger and violence. I  know there  are a significant minority who promote violent resistance here, but it's not all about them, and 99% of the Palestinian people's legitimate response to illegal occupation is peaceful. The ordinary people are lovely and they are suffering. The Israeli government has used suicide bombings as an excuse for the wall, when its own violence in the occupied lands has killed far more. You can't punish everyone for the terrorism of a few.  The wall's disproportionate oppression  is only likely to provoke more hatred, and so is counter-productive in that regard. Its true purpose can only be annexation & strangulation of further Palestinian land.

I am not anti-Israeli, just anti this illegal occupation, this awful bloody wall and these policies of attrition. Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Salaam, Peace, Shalom  to you all ..... and Kev I trust you had a great time with my Eindhoven ticket  ;D

© nige 2007

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