October 15 – Groups of Palestinian activists are denouncing using an historic match between their country and Saudi Arabia as ‘sportswashing’ to obscure the normalisation of the relationship between the Saudis and Israel.
The landmark fixture is due to take place in the West Bank city of Ramallah today and would mark a significant shift for the Saudis who have always previously played away games against Palestine on neutral ground.
The Saudi delegation arrived in Ramallah on Sunday via Jordan and Palestinian political and football leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas and Palestine Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub, welcomed the visit.
Rajoub hailed the fixture as “historic” and dismissed claims that the Saudi delegation’s visit was part of a hidden agenda.
“Politically, it is a culmination of a steady effort, investment and policy by Saudi Arabia since the beginning of our cause and the start of our revolution,” Rajoub said.
But not all Palestinians share that view. Many accuse the Saudis of using the game as a way of forging closer links with Israel which decides who to grant passage to the occupied territories.
A pre-match visit by the Saudi delegation to Al-Aqsa Mosque, for instance, came during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. Israeli forces routinely limit access to the Mosque compound among Palestinians during Jewish holidays.
The Palestinian Popular Campaign Against Normalisation began an online campaign on social media to reject the Saudi team’s visit.
Mahmoud Hamdan, an activist in the campaign, was quoted as saying: “Palestinian activists are well aware of the seriousness of the Saudi team’s visit as a prelude to Arab normalisation with Israel. Using sports is an easy gateway for normalisation, imposing it on sports fans who do not see the political connection.”
Basem Naem, head of Boycott Campaign–Palestine, says that the activists “consider the arrival of the Saudi football team to Ramallah as a form of normalisation, since such a thing could not happen without the coordination and protection of the Israeli occupation, which we completely reject.”
Israel, he claimed, is “under tremendous pressure to facilitate the movement of Arab delegations into Palestine in return for an opening into Arab capitals, which we condemn and totally don’t accept….
“Why else would Israel facilitate the movement of Arab delegations while it carries out crimes against Palestinian athletes and destroys sports infrastructure during its attacks, especially in the Gaza Strip?”
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