Seven-thousand ultra passionate Palestinian football fans packed Gaza's Yarmouk stadium on Thursday to witness and support a match that was seen as a symbolic triumph over the 15 year Israeli blockade and political tension.
Shejaia team from the war-torn Gaza strip and al-Ahly team from Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank territory played a long awaited match after Israeli authorities finally gave the visiting team permission to cross into its territory to determine which winning team will go on to represent Palestine in international tournaments, Reuters reported.
The match was regarded by players and fans alike as much more than a mere sporting event, due to West Bank and Gaza Strip being only 60 kilometres apart, yet separated by Israeli territory and Palestinian movement is restricted by Israeli authorities.
The match, which ended in a 0-0 draw, was a cause of relief for Gazans from the blockade induced poverty and destruction surrounding their reality, especially after the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict which lasted for 50 days.
The latest war in Gaza, occurred in 2014 and saw over 2,100 Palestinians killed, most of whom were civilians, as well as the death of 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians. 16,245 homes were destroyed due to the war and it continued for 50 days before a cease-fire put an end to it last August.
"No matter who wins, Palestine wins," said Akram Hajjaj, one of Shejaia's club managers.
A return finals match for the Palestinian Cup is scheduled for August 9 in Hebron, the winning team will play in the upcoming Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup representing Palestine.
Gaza sports official Abdel-Salam Haniyeh stated that Israel allowed the match due to international pressure only after the Palestine FA (PFA) raised a complaint to the world football’s governing body FIFA.
Palestine threatened to call for a vote at the annual FIFA Congress in May, to push for Israel's suspension from world football. But when FIFA agreed to send observers to monitor the situation, it dropped its motion at the last minute.
The PFA complained that Israel has restricted the movement of players and officials to and from the Palestinian territories for a very long time, while Israel responded with security concerns and stated that it has eased travel restrictions recently
Al-Ahly team was originally expected to arrive in Gaza on Monday but due to Israel’s blockade, the team entered the strip on Tuesday.
No comments were made about whether there was a change of heart or just a technical delay in issuing the players’ travel permits, the Israeli office that oversees movement in and out of Gaza told Reuters.
For Al-Ahli goalkeeper Azmi Shweiki, "football has succeeded where the politicians have failed. It brings people together."
He said he was "moved by people's smiles despite the living conditions.”
"This is an achievement for the Palestinian sports family and is a first step towards a unified Palestinian league and cup tournaments," Haniyeh told Reuters at a reception event for the West Bank visitors at a hotel in Gaza.
"I am full of honor and pride, this is the first time I have ever visited Gaza and I can't find the words to describe my feelings," Khaldon al-Halman, a player on the al-Ahly team, told Reuters.
"We saw in the media the damage from the war, but to see all of that for yourself, it's another feeling -- much stronger," al-Ahly captain Fadi Dweik said.
He called the match "a message of hope sent to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."
Shejaia FC president Salah Harzallah said: "The aim of this match was to break the blockade imposed on Gazan sports, and it was achieved when al-Ahli entered Gaza."