In Jerusalem, Palestinian families play political football

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Palestinian football players compete during a second-round match in a month-long tournament pitting together Jerusalem's largest Palestinian families, in the Burj Luqluq part of Jerusalem's Old City on September 17, 2018. (AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI)
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Members of the Palestinian Aqal family team before their second round match in a month-long football tournament in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Updated 09 October 2018

In Jerusalem, Palestinian families play political football

  • For players and fans, the tournament is a defiant display of Palestinian pride —  and footballing skill
  • It is also a display of family ties that informally govern East Jerusalem’s 300,000 Palestinians

JERUSALEM: Aqal passes to Aqal, who finds Aqal in space out wide. He squares to Aqal, who smashes home a strike, sending the crowd of yet more family members into hysterics.

The match inside Jerusalem’s walled Old City was part of a month-long football tournament in which the largest Palestinian families play each other to be dubbed champions of the city.

Building on the inaugural tournament two years ago, participants say this year’s event holds particular symbolism after US President Donald Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestinians saw the December decision as an attempt to deny their claims to the disputed city. They view its eastern sector, where the Old City is located, as the capital of their future state.

For players and fans, the tournament is a defiant display of Palestinian pride —  and footballing skill.

“We feel this is our land, so we want to stress we are the owners of the land by having a Palestinian tournament here,” organizer Muntaser Edkaidek told AFP.

It is also a display of family ties that informally govern East Jerusalem’s 300,000 Palestinians.

In Jerusalem, family history is often entwined with the city’s unique religious and political heritage.

The Khaldis claim to be descendants of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions.

The Joudehs and Nuseibehs, both Muslim families, have for centuries safeguarded the keys to the church in the Old City built where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified and then buried.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem along with the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and later declared the entire city its united capital.

Since then, Palestinians say they have been denied the full range of rights and benefits given to Jewish citizens.

More than 200,000 Israelis now live in mostly modern, newly built blocs east of the 1967 armistice line — decried as illegal settlements by the international community, but thriving and growing under Israeli law.

The Old City is only one square kilometer, but hosts some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

It is also a functioning neighborhood of more than 35,000 people, with homes, schools and shops tightly packed in.

Reaching the match involves winding through labyrinthine streets before the road opens onto a floodlit fake grass pitch flanked by the 16th-century walls of the Old City.

A single stand can host a hundred or so fans.

The Abu Sneihehs — reigning champions and possibly the largest of Jerusalem clans, with thousands bearing the surname —  were knocked out in the first round, raising hopes for less renowned names.

The Aqals, a relatively small family, are taking on the far larger Sanuqurats in the second round.

Before the match, the referee checks documents — without the right surname you cannot even enter the pitch.

One of the team’s two Mohammeds, a burly striker whose look is more mechanic than Messi, has forgotten his ID and is temporarily barred.

“Will a picture of it do?” he pleads, waving one on a mobile phone.

On the side of the pitch is a six-foot (1.8-meter) picture of one of the tournament’s founders.

He was arrested a year ago by Israeli police and jailed for involvement in an organization which claims to protect the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, located not far away in the Old City, Israeli media reports said.

Israeli security forces did not respond to a request regarding the case, but the state says the Al-Aqsa Youth group is linked to banned Islamist movement Hamas.

The Al-Aqsa compound, which hosts the Dome of the Rock, is the third-holiest site for Muslims and a key rallying point for Palestinian identity.

For Jews, it is built on the Temple Mount, their holiest site.

Organizers said police showed up on October 2 and removed the picture. Israeli police did not respond to requests for information.

On the pitch, the Aqals take an early lead but are quickly pegged back.

The standard is not much better than average pick-up games across the world, but the crowd loves it.

Hamzy Abedy is not even really watching —  instead facing toward the 25 hardcore members of the extended Aqal family, orchestrating them in ever more vociferous chants.

“We are all children of Jerusalem, so I brought all the team with me,” he laughs, pointing at the frenzied teenagers.

Other participants said the tournament helped them meet members of their extended family.

Just as the city they battle over is contested, there are also concerns over their pitch.

An Israeli court could yet decide to build more than 20 Israeli settlement homes in the vicinity, although there have been no developments in the case for several years, Aviv Tatarsky from the Ir Amim anti-settlement NGO said.

Yet it still concerns Palestinian residents worried about being swallowed by Jewish expansion into east Jerusalem.

Abedy said Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem made Palestinians more determined to remain in the city.

“Trump is talking into the wind,” he said after the match.

“He is not able to cancel our existence. We are here.”

The Aqals run out 6-1 victors, with Mohammed scoring one and setting up another two.

“Sport is the best thing to unify the Arabs,” he said, carrying his toddler away from the pitch.

“All the families will meet together and know each other. The whole world loves football.”

Palestine, Egypt offer air support as Israel battles wildfires

A firefighting aircraft flies over a forest near Kibbutz Harel, which was damaged by wildfires during a record heatwave, in Israel May 24, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 25 May 2019

Palestine, Egypt offer air support as Israel battles wildfires

  • Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes on Thursday as fires raged
  • The fires were fueled by high temperatures and dry condition

JERUSALEM: Egypt and four European countries sent aircraft to help Israel battle wildfires that have forced the evacuation of some small towns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday, as a record heatwave looked set to worsen conditions.
At an emergency briefing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had appealed for international help to combat the fires, and that firefighting planes were coming in from Greece, Croatia, Italy and Cyprus.
Egypt, on the orders of President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, had also sent two helicopters to assist Israel, Netanyahu told reporters.
The Palestinian Authority and Russia had also offered help, Netanyahu said.
Israel braced for wildfires on Friday amid a major heat wave that shows no signs of abating.
Israel “really appreciates” the help, Netanyahu said, singling out El-Sisi for sending aid.
“I am deeply thankful for the readiness of neighbors to help us in a time of crisis, just as we help them,” Netanyahu said.
Israel’s Fire and Rescue Service said blazes in a key corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were mostly under control but difficult weather remained a conflagration risk.
“As of this moment, this (containment) is being done in the best possible way, but the challenge is yet ahead of us given the weather conditions, the winds and the extreme heat,” Netanyahu said.
Some 3,500 residents of small towns in the path of the fires were evacuated on Thursday, officials said. Dozens of homes have burned down.

Thousands of people were evacuated from towns and dozens of homes were burned on Thursday as fires raged, fueled by high temperatures and dry conditions. Over 500 acres of woodland have burned, said Nitai Zecharya, an Israeli official from the Jewish National Fund, known for planting forests in the country.
Zecharya said that while firefighters had brought most of the blaze under control, officials remained “very stressed” about strong winds fanning flames and “spreading fires to other fronts.”
The cause of the fires remains unclear, but they erupted following the Jewish festival of Lag Ba’Omer, which observers mark with bonfires.
A sweltering heat wave is pushing temperatures in parts of the country up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, or 43 Celsius.