Bullets Still Fly, but Hamas and Fatah Unite on One Thing: Soccer

The excitement in the announcer's voice was as if he were at a World Cup soccer final. "Gaza wins the big derby - for the first time in five years we are witnesses to these feelings of joy!" he cried, as if reporting on Palestine's historic victory over national rivals.

That would be the impression of those who stumbled by mistake upon Saturday afternoon's live radio broadcast on Hamas's Al-Aqsa station from Gaza's Palestine Stadium. Two hours earlier it was already impossible to find a taxi in Rafah, and dozens of buses in the city were full to the roof with fans heading north for the Palestinian Soccer Federation cup final between Rafah Club and Shabab (Youth) Rafah.

The announcer named the dignitaries honoring the match with their presence, including Dr. Bassam Naim - minister of sport and youth and minister of health - and Abd al-Salam Haniyeh, son of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Both father and son are well-known soccer aficionados.

A casual visitor might think this was a propaganda act put on by Hamas - public praise for its own officials and police presented in a live broadcast from its own radio station. But Ibrahim Abu Salim, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Football Federation, is a Fatah man. Moreover, the coordinating committees of both competing clubs, and for the Shati refugee camp team, which organized the event, are also Fatah-run.

Yet still police in Gaza prevent Fatah members from entering their own organization's offices, which have been expropriated by Hamas, and Fatah men are afraid to criticize the ruling movement, lest they be singled out for a bullet to the knees.

"We send a special message of thanks to Jibril Rajoub," said the announcer, inviting the Fatah stalwart and soccer federation president to Gaza.

It's not a mistake, nor a slip of the tongue. Rajoub was responsible for the arrest of Hamas officials while head of the Preventative Security Service in the West Bank. Sources in Gaza said the soccer federation was saved the same fate as the Palestinian government thanks to the warm relations between Rajoub and the junior Haniyeh - it remained unified, even though in the past two years Hamas has taken over some of the sports teams in the Strip previously run by Fatah.

The friendliness between Rajoub and the younger Haniyeh was made evident in the agreement signed yesterday between the sports minister - who again found time off from addressing pressing health problems - and the soccer federation. The pact states that within a week control of the teams will be returned to the committees that previously ran them.

Due to the fighting between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinian medical patients have been unable to leave Gaza for treatment for three weeks, but nonetheless Hamas has agreed return the keys to the sports clubs to Fatah.

Within a week elections will be held to fill positions on the federation in Gaza (elections for positions in the West Bank were held last year).

Meanwhile, Osama Hamdan, a member of the Hamas politburo living in exile in Lebanon, requested on Sunday that Rajoub join the security committee in reconciliation talks between the Palestinian factions. This is a clear statement of confidence in Rajoub, and perhaps also a signal that Hamas is interested in reaching a unity agreement.

For those more interested in sports than politicking, the two teams reportedly disappointed at the start, playing slowly and without inspiration, until Shabab gradually recovered and injected life into the match. The first goal was scored by Rafah's Shadi Abu Ahmed in the 34th minute, then Ahmed Abd al-Hadi equalized a minute later. Shabab won on penalty kicks.