GAZA: Sport breaking down barriers - Analysis by Trevor Hogan, Irish Examiner, 180213.

Sport breaking down barriers

HAVING been stopped from reaching Gaza on two previous occasions, crossing over the border was a moment realised.

I was eager to absorb all I could during my short stay, to meet the people whose lives have been affected by the blockade, and what I saw was a resilience and an inherent optimism.

Driving in to Gaza from Egypt’s Rafah crossing, the sun was low in the sky. Children played feverishly, making the most of the dwindling daylight. They dotted the roadside as we made our way to Gaza city, some passing balls, others practising against walls, or playing volleyball with makeshift nets.

It is impossible not to notice the children of Gaza. This is no surprise, considering young people make up over 50% of the 1.7m population. Yet what is even more striking is their positive and buoyant attitude in a place that’s seen so much pain and destruction.

I was travelling with a group of nine other Irish people, all part of the recently established Gaza Action Ireland, which is aiming to build civil society links between Ireland and Gaza. It quickly became clear that perceptions about Gaza being home to innumerable bombed sites and destruction were not misplaced. But this narrative can often obscure the daily life and normal existence that continues alongside the adversity.

The Arabic word “sumoud” was new to me, but for Palestinians it is an inherent part of their culture. It translates as “steadfastness”, and captures the approach of the people of Gaza towards the siege that has been imposed by Israel since 2007. It represents the strength of character that Palestinians show despite the many obstacles that occupation presents in their daily life. It was an outlook we were greeted with on every day of our trip.

This attitude was clear to me in how Palestinians in Gaza continue to play sport despite huge obstacles. Restrictions on the movement of teams and referees mean players are often prevented from travelling to attend training sessions.

Players are routinely delayed and a star of the Palestinian soccer team, Mahmoud Sarsak, was arrested while on his way to a training session in the West Bank. He was subsequently held without charge for three years. The organisation of tournaments or leagues is severely limited, and games largely take place on an ad hoc basis.

Up until 2010, soccer balls were just one of the many items banned from entering Gaza, and restrictions still apply for technical equipment such as digital screens needed for basketball. Almost 100kg of rugby gear and balls that had been kindly donated by my teammates in Leinster and Munster for the 2011 flotilla still lies impounded in the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The Palestine soccer stadium has been bombed several times by Israel, most recently in the November assault on Gaza, leaving the outer structure of the stadium, which we saw, shattered. One club we visited, the Al Helal sporting club, had its windows blown out in the November bombing.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has documented how, on separate occasions in recent months, bullets fired by Israeli soldiers stationed nearby killed three children while they played football — 17-year-old Ahmad Harara; his cousin, 16-year-old Muhammed Harara; and 13-year-old Muhammed Abu Daqa. The youngest was hit in the stomach, while wearing the jersey of his beloved Real Madrid.

Yet, despite this, a passion for sport pervades. Any spare patch of ground, sand, or track is quickly given over to spontaneous soccer or volleyball games. We watched an organised friendly between Al Helal and local rivals Al Sadaqa, played on grounds located on what used to be the Israeli settlement of Nezarim.

Al Helal plan a move to the Nezarim site, home to one of the few grass pitches in Gaza. We also visited a soccer school where kids from the age of six trained and practised their dribbling skills in the shadow of buildings destroyed by the November bombings.

Fadi Sultan has just been picked for the Palesinian U14 national team and presented us with a small jersey of his club. I gave him one of my old Leinster jerseys, hoping that one day he will fit into it.

Rugby is virtually unheard of here, but with the freedom to travel that every society should enjoy, I feel it is a game that could quickly develop. A number of Palestinian refugees — unable to return to Gaza because of the siege — have expressed a huge interest in rugby.

In the meantime, we hope to invite an underage soccer team to a small tournament in Ireland that could help, in some small way, to overcome the limits of the blockade.

The spirit of “sumoud” is not confined to sport in Gaza. We met with fishermen who told of how, as they seek to fish their waters, are harassed, beaten, and shot. Despite visible scars and trauma, they say they will continue to fish for their families and their people.

We visited the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and Shifa Hospital where we were told about constant electricity blackouts and a shortage of radiology equipment because of the siege. They also detailed how ambulances can be targeted during Israeli attacks and how a lack of basic medicines have resulted in half of children under three in Gaza suffering from anaemia. Yet this fails to diminish the energy and determination of the staff and doctors. Dr Ghada Al Jadba passionately describes their struggle against the blockade: “We don’t want our people simply to survive, we want them to live.”

The busy square of Il Saha in Gaza city is full of street stalls and a constant flow of human traffic. The economy has effectively been strangled through the banning of all exports and domestic industry severely restricted, but here in Il Saha, a resourceful and resolute nature survives.

Partly thanks to the underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, small traders, fruit sellers, and meat vendors are found among busy side streets. We quickly attracted a curious crowd, not used to tourists in their town. Hoping to engage with the locals, I bought a packet of chewing gum from a young street seller, paying him 10 shekels. Moments later his friend returned, handing back money, explaining that I’d given too much. This type of gesture would be consistently repeated. The people of Gaza will not allow themselves to be defined by the crippling impact of the siege.

This refusal to allow the siege dictate their lives was captured for me when I met 800m runner Abdal Salam Al-Dabaji.

There is not a single tartan track in Gaza, yet he managed to train on potholed sand tracks and qualify for the Athens Olympics. The 800m runner has no Olympic medals but provides a source of inspiration more profound than any trophy could offer. This is what it really means to struggle for your sport.

The obstacles imposed on their lives by Israel will not define Abdal, the young soccer players, the young children, or any of the people of Gaza. Their spirit will help them break these barriers in a place where they aim not just to survive, but to live.

* Trevor Hogan is a former Irish rugby international and played with both Munster and Leinster.