When the coach of Shabab Khan Yunis was preparing his soccer team’s roster for the finals of the Palestine Cup, he didn’t realize that Israel’s defense establishment would have the final say. But when the team arrived at the Erez Checkpoint on Wednesday to enter Israel en route from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, they were delayed for 12 hours and, in the end, only some of the players were allowed through.
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Six players, including the goalies, along with one coach and the team’s spokesman, were barred from entering Israel. Only 10 players were allowed to continue on their way to Hebron, where the championship finals are due to be played on Saturday.
But the Palestinian Football Association said the game will be canceled unless all the players are allowed to participate. It said it does not intend to let Israel determine the composition of the teams.
Senior association officials said they have been talking with Israeli officials for the past two days in an effort to secure the players’ passage, but to no avail. They said they had informed Israel of the trip in advance and hadn’t been told of any security problems with any of the players.
Association chairman Jibril Rajoub told Haaretz there was no justification for the decision to prevent some of the players from passing through Israel.
“This behavior is embarrassing,” he said. “The players arrived at the checkpoint and were forced to wait 12 hours and to undergo interrogations and checks that have no relationship to security. I heard they were asked about their neighbors and about all kinds of things in Gaza that have no connection to security.”
“The sole purpose was to wear them down for hours upon hours in the burning heat, and in the end to allow only part of the team to pass the checkpoint and reach Hebron,” he added.
Jibril stressed that the championship game was crucial, as it would determine which team represents the Palestinians in pan-Arab competitions and in the Asian Games. “I don’t know if there’s any place else in the world where they treat soccer teams like this,” he added.
He said that in the first game of the finals, which Hebron’s Al-Ahly club won, some of the Hebron players weren’t allowed to enter Gaza.
Jibril asked whether Israelis could imagine Israeli players not being allowed to enter an Arab country for an international competition — something that has in fact happened several times, but which he insisted “sounds delusional.”
“But with regard to the Palestinians, anything goes,” he charged. “We won’t let Israel set our rosters for us.”
Palestinian Football Association officials said the checkpoint problems aren’t unique to matches involving teams from Gaza; players have also been delayed at Israeli checkpoints while trying to travel between the northern and southern West Bank for matches with other West Bank teams.
Another problem, they said, is getting permission for Israeli Arabs playing on Palestinian teams to enter Gaza.
The army’s Coordination and Liaison Administration, which handles entry permits to Israel from Gaza, referred Haaretz’s questions to the Shin Bet security service.
The Shin Bet said that “after investigating, a decision was made to bar entry to some members of the team due to damaging security information and in light of the security situation.”