As the tension built between Israel and Lebanon, I set off for Nazareth earlier this summer with a bag of football tops and the idea that through the beautiful game could come peace.
But as I approached Heathrow’s Terminal Four, news came of the ﬁrst Hezbollah rocket hitting the northern city of Haifa from bordering Lebanon and, with that, football4peace 2006, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian children for a week of football coaching and relationship-building, was cancelled. Determined not to let this get in the way, I would still go there and teach football, even if it wasn’t to my original destination, which would soon join Haifa on Hezbollah’s hit list.
After spending a week in Jerusalem, I arrived at the checkpoint of the Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank. The silence was ghostly as I passed through what looks like a highly secure and very bland airport terminal. Usually a hub for tourists from around the globe, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is receiving few visitors of late. The World Cup a month earlier had seen most businesses shut early for people to gather and watch games. Since the war, there is little point in opening at all.
Shut off from Israel by a 25-foot ‘security’ wall and surrounded by checkpoints armed by Israeli military guards, the imprisoned people of Bethlehem can only leave
– even to travel within Palestine – with permission from Israel, and no reason need be given for saying no. This restriction of movement – a violation of international law – has been in place since 1967, and means that Palestinians are often denied access to health, education and work.
Football is no exception. The national team is made up of players living in surrounding Arab countries and South America, because those living in Palestine are often denied permission to leave their villages, towns or cities for training or games. And it happens on all levels, as I found out on my ﬁrst evening in Bethlehem, training with Orthodox Christian Club Beit Sahur. The manager, ex-Jordanian international ‘Captain’ Simon, excitedly told me the club was planning to go on a tour of Jordan that month. I had been impressed by the way the midﬁeld play-maker, Samir, had managed to control the ball so easily on the stone-covered dirt pitch, and I presumed he would be central to the team in Jordan. ‘Samir cannot go’, Captain told me. ‘He cannot get permission because his father failed to register him as a child and he does not have an identity.’ Aged 25, Samir has never left Bethlehem and probably never will. Such stories are not uncommon in these parts.
The local kids had never had a proper football coach and my experience in the Arsenal youth team qualiﬁed me as such. A day before the course was due to start, I was back on the other side of the wall to collect my assistant, Liam, who was carrying all the balls, bibs and cones, from Tel Aviv Airport. I sat in Arrivals talking to a former Israeli solder about the unavoidable topic in these parts, known as ‘the situation’, which roughly translates as the conﬂict between Israel and Palestine, and now incorporates the latest war, Iran, and UK and US foreign policy (‘Bush, Blair, bad’ is a regular conversation starter in Palestine).
After several hours Liam had still not appeared. Unbeknown to me, he was being questioned by Israeli police, who took his ﬁngerprints, accessed his emails and accused him of being involved with certain ‘organisations’. They had seen his address was Finsbury Park and when they found out he had a new passport, that was enough. It was nearly midnight, and for the tenth time in as many hours I approached Information. ‘Are you Sam?’ the man asked. I nodded. ‘Your friend is being sent home.’ The man could tell me nothing more than that it was for ‘security’ reasons.
Liam spent the night in a cell with all the other suspected terrorists, later saying ‘the Israelis treated me like a criminal and the whole experience was very intimidating’. He ﬂew home the next morning with a ‘denied entry’ stamp on his passport – and I had no assistant and no equipment.
The next day, I approached the concrete pitch with two borrowed footballs. The kids were eager to learn and ﬁercely competitive, and the hot weather and street-football education had nurtured mainly
South American-style players, with skill and technique in abundance. Some have everything it takes to make it as a professional, apart from one thing – they are Palestinian and, as with many other potential career paths, the Occupation severely weakens their chances. When I left, I told them I’d see them playing for Palestine in the World Cup one day. They laughed. With ‘the situation’ the way it is, I fear such a reaction is just about right.
Sam is an ex-pupil of Stoke Newington School and is about to start working in the school’s Special Needs department. For more information on football4peace, visit www.football4peace.org.uk