Soccer / Palestinian Soccer Team Laments Gaza Travel Ban

Israel's refusal to allow players to travel from Gaza led to a no-show for the Palestine national team at Wednesday's Asian Cup Qualifier in Singapore.

The head of the Palestinian Football Association said his national team's no-show at an Asian Cup qualifier against hosts Singapore yesterday was due to Israel's refusal to allow players to travel from Gaza.

Ahmed al-Afifi said the fixture had to be canceled because players making up most of the team could not travel through the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt. Another three players, Palestinian expatriates, were to have traveled separately.

He said Israel had also refused to allow team members to take an alternative route via Israel and the West Bank to Jordan for their onward journey to Singapore. They had planned to travel to Singapore on November 12.

The Israel Defense Forces denied the allegation, saying Rafah was open to the team at the time of their request to travel abroad. But a military spokesman confirmed that Erez, a Gaza border crossing used by Palestinians to enter Israel, had been closed due to security concerns.

Afifi said the Palestinian FA had appealed to world soccer's governing body, FIFA, which he had urged to reschedule the match.

"Israel has refused to allow the team to pass through the Erez crossing to travel to Jordan and from there to Singapore but FIFA insisted that the game must be held on time," Afifi told reporters in Gaza.

The Rafah crossing with Egypt has been closed intermittently since June 25, when Palestinian militants killed two Israeli soldiers and abducted another in a cross-border attack from Gaza.

Palestinian national team captain Saeb Jundeya said he was disappointed. "I had assured all my neighbors and people who asked me whether the game would be held on time that we would travel, but today I have to tell them that we were unable to make it because the occupation (Israel) did not allow it," he said.

Neither Singapore nor Palestine - the name FIFA gives the Palestinian team - can qualify for next year's finals as Iraq and 2004 Asian Cup hosts China have already guaranteed their places.

The 2007 Asian Cup will be co-hosted by Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia from July 7-29.