Saudi Arabia and Palestine’s national football teams faced each other yesterday in a much-anticipated game in the occupied West Bank, which saw Riyadh criticised for allowing its nationals to travel across Israel’s borders.
The move to play and hold the match in the occupied West Bank is a break from the norms and usual process for Arab sports teams, which have for decades held games and events with Palestinian teams in a third country in order to avoid passing through Israeli checkpoints.
Saudi holds no formal relations with Israel and its nationals have, for decades, been banned from travelling to the country. Access to the occupied West Bank can only be achieved through Israel as the occupation state has sealed all entry points between Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The game yesterday, which was held at Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium in the town of Al-Ram and was a qualifying match for both the World Cup 2022 and the Asia Cup 2023 international tournaments, resulted in a 0-0 draw.
The Saudi football authority stated that its team was initially invited by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to play in the West Bank, with the President of the Saudi Football Federation Yasser Al-Mashal expressing his gratitude to the PA for its warm welcome and hosting of the Saudi team. “I am here representing more than 20 million Saudis,” Al-Mashal stated. “I have visited many countries but I did not feel this level of love, appreciation and welcoming except in Palestine.”
The head of the Palestine Football Association Jibril Rajoub in turn thanked the kingdom and labelled the game “historical”. Rajoub also touched upon the concept that the relationship between sports and politics should be non-existent, saying that “We have succeeded – with the support of everyone – to make sport not related to politics…We hope that sports will stay away from politics.”
While the match could well be perceived as an increase in relations between Saudi Arabia and Palestine, it has mostly been criticised for its effect in normalising ties with the State of Israel. During their trip, the Saudi team visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, travelling across the Israeli occupation’s checkpoints to do so.
The international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement released a statement last week condemning the move as being “in the context of the dangerous official normalisation of the Saudi regime – along with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and others – with Israel and the growing normal security and political relations between them, [the visit] is part of the attempts to liquidate the Palestinian cause,” it warned.The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also condemned the hosting of the match in the West Bank, considering it “normalisation with Israel via sports”.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf Arab states have been undergoing an increase in relations with Israel which has raised concerns from many that they are slowly normalising ties with the Jewish state and side-lining the struggle against the continued occupation of Palestinian territories.
In January, three prominent Iraqi delegations consisting of some of the country’s leaders and politicians secretly visited Israel over the past few months, and met with government officials and academics in order to discuss Iraqi-Jewish heritage and to build a foundation for future ties between both nations. In July, the foreign ministers of both Israel and Bahrain held a public meeting together in the United States (US), marking the first such incident to openly take place between an Arab country and Israel.