The atrocities experienced by both Israelis and Gazans in the aftermath of the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 have been horrific and roundly condemned. Amidst the surge of violence, it is hard to pick out a side that is winning or losing. This is especially true when major news outlets disagree on crucial points, such as who is to blame for the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Equally blurred is the parallel conflict happening in every country around the world — the fight to influence public opinion and make relative gains in soft power.
Public sentiment has demanded statements and stances from every prominent body imaginable, including university presidents, Christian churches and reality television stars. Some statements matter more than others in their impact, and some of those impacts are routinely underestimated by Western media. One such example is the debate on the football (American soccer) pitch.
The football world has imploded in its attempt to maintain a diplomatic stance. The week of Oct. 18, the English Premier League banned flags from either side. Palestine’s four-color flag, as well as banners, signs and crowd chants, stood proud in audiences around the world anyway. Algeria immediately stepped up to host Palestine’s national football team’s matches. Individual players have made pro-Palestine statements and have been accordingly censured. OGC Nice’s Youcef Atal and 1 FSV Mainz 05’s Anwar El Ghazi were both suspended by their respective clubs. FC Bayern is in disciplinary talks with Noussair Mazraoui after his pro-Palestine Instagram post. Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny faced club pushback for his tweet. For his weeks of silence, Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah lost one million Instagram followers.
These are not, however, like any other celebrity statements, especially for the Palestinian collective consciousness. At this critical moment, football’s disproportionate role in Palestinian popular culture has never been more important.
The Palestinian football team has long stood for the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinian people. As the only internationally recognized sports team, it has been a symbol of Palestinian interests, and a forceful declaration of the Palestinian global presence. The team is even nicknamed the Fedayeen, a term laden with historical significance. Ask a Palestinian what the term Fedayeen means, and they will tell you it connotes guerilla resistance, left-wing idealism and the return of the homeland. The Fedayeen epitomizes what Palestine could be. Ask an Israeli about the term Fedayeen, on the other hand, and the first thought might be of terror.
In an atmosphere where residents of the Palestinian territories feel oppressed, betrayed and internationally silenced, the football team represents the progressive push towards a modern Palestinian future. In the territories, where half of women and 63% of men agreed that domestic violence should be tolerated, the vice president of the Palestinian Football Association is a woman named Susan Shalabi. Even more incredibly, there’s a recognized national women’s team, too.
It is a natural result, then, that victories of the Palestinian football team become victories for the Fedayeen ideological mantle they wear. The challenges that members of the national team face, parallel to the challenges of living in the territories, are well-documented and are met with little sympathy from the international football community. Israel’s hesitation or outright refusal to grant players’ exit visas often leads to forfeitures, match delays and, in 2007, an involuntary exit from the World Cup qualifications. Even worse is the crossing for Gazan players from Gaza to the West Bank, disallowed at random, even for key home matches. In 2006, Israel bombed Gaza’s football stadium to destruction. In 2009, Israeli airstrikes killed three national team members: Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian national team continues to have successes. In 2022, the team qualified for the 2023 Asian Cup, winning three straight games against Mongolia without conceding a goal.
“It’s like glimpsing an oasis of hope,” said Shalabi. “To qualify under such dire circumstances renews Palestinians’ faith in our national resilience.”
Even more significant in the rush for Palestinian soft power was the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Never mind that the Palestinian national team had not qualified; no matter who was on the pitch, the Palestinian flag unfurled in the audience. When Moroccan players made the historic qualification to quarter-finals, it was the Palestinian flag that they waved. Israeli journalists and attendees experienced heckling and discrimination in Qatar under a pro-Palestinian guise.
“The FIFA World Cup is over,” wrote the Washington Report, “and there is one clear winner: Palestine.”
Football has historically been a sensitive topic for the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Arab world. Even in Jordan and Egypt, which normalized ties with Israel decades ago, the same interdependence which extends to military and economic affairs stops with football. In a 2020 poll, 87% of Jordanians agreed that the government should disallow sports contacts with Israelis. 90% of polled Egyptians said the same. These are staggering figures for countries that hold majority-negative opinions of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Palestinian soft power has always been especially concentrated in the world of football, made evident by its disproportionate berth in Palestinian national pride and the international support consistently shown by football fans around the world. It is unsurprising that it should continue to do the same in this latest conflict between Hamas and Israel. At a moment when President Joe Biden is calling Hamas evil and the Israeli flag is projected onto Germany’s historic Brandenburg Gate, it can feel like soft power scales tip entirely in the Israeli direction. It is crucial to remember, however, that protests from football players and fans represent something bigger. It speaks to decades of cultural linkage between football and Palestinian hopes and dreams. To the Palestinian people, who feel, as Shalabi said, “abandoned by their Arab brethren and betrayed by an international community,” football is both a fervent hope and an assertion of presence. For footballers like Mazraoui to stand by Palestine now means more than any outsiders might imagine.