Israel Bars Gaza Soccer Players From Leaving Strip, Forcing Cancellation of West Bank Match

Israel has been blocking for over two months the requests of the Rafah team seeking to compete in the Palestinian soccer cup championship, citing 'security reasons'

The first match of the Palestinian Cup final in the Gaza Strip, in June.
SAID KHATIB / AFP

The Jerusalem District Court has barred the majority of the soccer players of a Rafah team from leaving the Gaza Strip and traveling to the West Bank for the return final match in the Palestinian soccer cup championship. 

The ruling has thereby prevented the game from taking place. Judge Moshe Sobel accepted the position of the Coordinator of Civil Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and recommendations by the Shin Bet security service, prohibiting 23 players from leaving the coastal enclave. He also recommended to strike the petition that had been submitted on this issue.

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Last month, Haaretz reported that for over two months, Israel has been preventing the soccer cupholder in Gaza, Khadamat Rafah, from going for a return match against its West Bank counterpart, a team from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. The first match was held in Gaza on June 30, ending in a 1:1 draw. The return match was scheduled for July 3. The winner of the two matches is supposed to represent Palestine in the Asian champions’ league.

Ahead of the return match, the Rafah team submitted to Israel detailed requests for exit permits for 22 players and 13 team officials and coaches. Three days before the scheduled match, the team’s spokesman learned that four requests had been approved, only one of them for a player. The rest were denied “for security reasons.” An alternative date was set, September 25, and the requests were re-submitted to COGAT on August 21. Last Monday, COGAT said 12 of the applicants could travel, only 5 of them players. Monday’s court ruling denied the appeals of the other applicants.

The Gisha non-profit organization, which advocates for the freedom of movement for Palestinians, was the group that petitioned the Jerusalem court last week, asking it to instruct COGAT to allow the team to leave Gaza. The petition notes that the Palestine Cup is recognized by FIFA, the international soccer association, and that further delay would threaten the participation of the winner in international games.

President of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub.
Nir Kafri

Gisha also argued that sport events such as this fall within the narrow range of criteria defined by Israel as justifying travel between Palestinian areas. “The ease with which the state marks Palestinians as security risks repeatedly appears to be a sweeping and arbitrary procedure, which ignores the serious damage done to the fabric of civic life in Palestinian territories,” say Gisha activists.

COGAT says that each request is examined individually and thoroughly, based on criteria that appear on their website, as well as on security considerations. There is also coordination with the Palestinian Authority,'s ministry for civil affairs in the  which passes its considerations to Israel. Justice Sobel noted in his ruling that the security service had shown him reports indicating that the requests had been examined individually for each petitioner, so that a rejection would have been given for an exit for any other reason as well.