The Shujaiyeh soccer club left its home turf in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday morning and began the journey through Israel's Erez border crossing to the West Bank city of Hebron, where it is scheduled to face off against the local team in a historical final match of the Palestine Cup games on Friday.
- Palestine Cup soccer final delayed after Gaza players barred from traveling to West Bank
- Palestinian FIFA move hit an Israeli nerve
- FIFA delegation visits Gaza after 12 years, pledges funds for stadiums
The game, between Shujaiyeh and West Bank champions Al-Ahly, will decide which of the two clubs will represent Palestine in the next Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.
This is the first time Israel has permitted a Gaza-based club to travel to the West Bank since the blockade was imposed on the Strip following a violent takeover by Hamas in 2007. Initially the game was postponed indefinitely after Israel denied entry permits to four of the Gaza players.
Shujaiyeh's delegation, which includes players, coaches and management, entered Israel through the Erez Crossing on Wednesday and traveled to Jerusalem, where the players prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and took selfies in front of the Dome of the Rock. After visiting Jersualem, they traveled on to Hebron.
On Wednesday morning the team had to wait some three hours at the Erez Crossing, while the four players were questioned by Israeli security officials. The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) blamed the chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, for the hold-up. COGAT said that the four players were asked to come for questioning at the crossing the previous day, but that Rajoub refused.
"It is a shame that Rajoub once again uses the sport once again in order to advance his political agenda," sources in COGAT said.
Sources within the Palestinian Football Federation said the decision to allow the team and the four contested players – which Israel said it needed to question – to enter the country was reached as part of a compromise between Israel and the Palestinians over the latter's attempt to ban Israel from FIFA in May.
At the time, Israel made a commitment to allow freer movement of Palestinian sport personnel and Palestinian sport officials say such a commitment was now being tested.
Rajoub said on Thursday he had received a letter from FIFA's President Joseph Blatter saying he would work to remove obstacles that may hinder the holding of the final game.
The PFA has complained that Israel restricts the movement of players and officials to and from the Palestinian territories. Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, although it says it has eased travel recently.
Friday's championship will be a follow-up of a match on Thursday between Al-Ahly, the top team in the West Bank and Gaza's champion Shujaiyeh.
That game, which took place in Gaza, ended in a goal-less draw, had been the first such visit since a Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000.