By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Victory in Gaza
The long-delayed championship soccer game of the Gaza Cup tournament this year — the first Gaza Cup since the intifada started — was a face-off between two teams from the most wrecked part of Gaza: Rafah, the southern tip, right along the Egyptian border.
In Rafah, almost 900 homes have been demolished by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) since the start of the intifada, 287 people have been killed, and American Rachel Corrie was run over by an Israeli army bulldozer. Recently, the Palestinian Authority housing minister was attacked by a mob when he told Rafah residents with demolished homes that the P.A. couldn’t give them new houses. Hardship has not been an ennobling experience for people in Rafah. They’re angry, and sometimes scary.
“There is no authority in Rafah,” said the translator as we drove by a group of
men running off to either watch or join a large fight.
The IDF says it destroys houses in Rafah because weapons are smuggled in from Egypt through tunnels that sometimes end in people’s homes. Palestinians say the IDF destroys way more houses than it needs to. On the walls near Rafah’s brand-new Rachel Corrie kindergarten, graffiti attributed to the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed four people in Israel a few days before.
“This is revenge for what happened in Rafah,” it said.
Over at the soccer field in Gaza City, the Gaza Cup began with a show of goodwill. Both teams — the Rafah U.N. Refugee Services Team, in green shorts, and the Rafah Youth Sporting Club, in blue — jogged over to smile and wave at each other’s fans, and the fans threw candies onto the field.
The translator later said: “These two teams hate each other.”
Injuries started occurring almost immediately, and from the performances of the injured parties, it was impossible to tell who was truly hurt and who simply wanted to persuade the referee that justice, in the form of a penalty kick, was required. One player sank to his knees and then fell over, another curled into a ball and pounded the earth with his palm over and over, and another lay huddled on the ground while his teammates played on around him. If you focused on the field, it could have been a soccer game anywhere in the world.
At halftime, there was no score, and the blue-team coach, 52-year-old Omar Abu Zaid, was furious. As another reporter observed, he resembled Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris— fat and dissolute-looking, with shoulder-length gray hair and the manner of a man on the very edge.
“I don’t believe what you’re doing! Go pray and come back!” he screamed at the blue players, some of whom jogged off to form a prayer line with a few riot police who also wanted to pray.
When the team reassembled, the coach alternated between soft, menacing sentences and shouts that convulsed his entire body. “Don’t talk. Don’t say anything. Just listen to me. LOOK FOR THE EMPTY SPACE! FLY TO THE EMPTY SPACE! You look in shape, you look good, BUT IT’S A SHAME WHAT YOU’RE DOING! We have to win. We’re playing football; they’re not doing anything. BE LIKE A HAWK!”
He ran his hands through his hair.
When the other team scored in the first five minutes of the second half, the blue side started to unravel. A scuffle broke out between the coach and one of his players. The blue fans started chanting, “Sonofabitch referee! Sonofabitch referee!” A few minutes later, a blue fan threw a soda can onto the field, and the coach stalked across the field to yell at the ref.
All at once, the riot police appeared, holding round shields made, surprisingly, of wicker. The blue coach was escorted off the field and play resumed, but at the dugout, another fight almost started when one of the riot police pushed one of the blue players. The coach rushed over, other players rushed over, and the only man who could stop the madness was the head of the riot police, a calm black man who killed everyone with kindness — smiling, putting his hands on their shoulders, hugging people if necessary. To the fans, he said: “You’re good people. You’re nice. Don’t throw anything.” ‰
Suddenly everything changed: The blue team scored, courtesy of 28-year-old midfielder Jamal Al-Holi, the best player. The fans roared. The coach fainted. For a minute it seemed he’d had a heart attack — a crowd stood over him pouring water on his face, holding his legs straight up, and waving a jacket over him to give him air. When the coach revived, his son, with tears in his eyes, staggered around shouting, “God give us victory!” and tried to pick a fight with the player who had yelled at his dad earlier.
Al-Holi was one of three blue-team players whose homes had been demolished. He’d told us about it earlier.
“Tanks and bulldozers came,” he said, “and the Israelis called out over loudspeakers: ‘Whoever wants to go on living must leave his home immediately. Whoever wants to die can stay behind.’ They took us to a place about 300 [yards] away, and then we heard a big explosion. My house was destroyed. Nothing was left.”
The blue team won, in overtime penalty kicks, led by Al-Holi. The coach fainted all over again and was hoisted onto the shoulders of players and fans, and paraded around the emptying field.