West Bank fans proud of Palestine's Asian Cup heroics

For those in the team captain's native village, and despite the team's last 16 loss to Qatar in Doha, the game was 90 minutes of pure pride

By AFP

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A young family member of Palestine national team captain Musab al-Battat cheers in the village of Al-Dhahiriya in the occupied West Bank. — AFP
A young family member of Palestine national team captain Musab al-Battat cheers in the village of Al-Dhahiriya in the occupied West Bank. — AFP

Published: Tue 30 Jan 2024, 2:06 PM

Last updated: Tue 30 Jan 2024, 2:07 PM

Despite the war and whatever the result, the only thing that mattered in Al-Dhahiriyah in the occupied West Bank on Monday was the number 7 jersey worn by Palestine's Musab al-Battat.

For those in the team captain's native village, and despite the team's last 16 loss to Qatar in Doha, the game was 90 minutes of pure pride.

Hours before Monday's kick-off, the plastic chairs had already been drawn up in a semicircle.

There were sweets, and black, green and red wigs in the national colours for the kids. For the men there were endless cigarettes.

Four generations gathered together on a terrace under an awning to cheer for the Lions of Canaan.

Among them was Battat's 80-year-old grandmother, who held her hands to the sky and implored the football gods to bestow victory on the Palestine team.

And Palestine opened the score in the 37th minute, causing an explosion of joy among those watching the game on television.

Qatar may be a political ally of the Palestinians, but on the pitch it's a different matter altogether.

The game took place against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, and a brief moment's silence was held before Monday's kick-off.

Some of the Palestinian squad have lost loved ones or have relatives trapped in Gaza.

But for the first time in its history, Palestine had reached the knockout rounds of the Asian Cup.

The grandmother (second left) of Palestine captain Musab al-Battat prays as she watches the match between Qatar and Palestine. — AFP
The grandmother (second left) of Palestine captain Musab al-Battat prays as she watches the match between Qatar and Palestine. — AFP

Oday Dabbagh stunned the Qatar crowd of almost 65,000 at the Al-Bayt Stadium with his opening goal, and the Palestinians celebrated by crossing their arms in a handcuffs gesture to symbolise the plight of their people.

The mood in the West Bank is not normally festive, Battat's mother Hanaa al-Hawarin said.

"The (Israeli) raids come every day," she said.

On Monday alone, five Palestinians were killed in Israeli raids across the territory.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and its troops increasingly make incursions into Palestinian communities where faded national flags are flown.

Hours before Monday's match, the main shopping streets of Hebron, the nearest city to the village, showed little sign of excitement about the fixture.

Palestinians watch the match. — AFP
Palestinians watch the match. — AFP

A few dozen kilometres (miles) away, the bombs are falling on Gaza in a war that has lasted for nearly four months.

It began when Gaza-based Hamas fighters launched an unprecedented attack on southern Israel that killed around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel's relentless military offensive in response has killed at least 26,637 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas government's health ministry in the territory.

At the sporting level, things are complicated. Local football championships in the West Bank and Gaza have been suspended, and the Palestine team trains abroad.

Khaled al-Battat, the captain's father, said his pride in seeing his son wear the national colours is mixed with anger.

Khaled worked in construction in Israel before his permit to do so was suspended because of the war.

Family members of Musab al-Battat react as they watch the match. — AFP
Family members of Musab al-Battat react as they watch the match. — AFP

He said his son learned to control the ball in the village streets when he was a boy. Musab began playing when he was 11, and always loved football.

"If he didn't have a football he made one -- he could turn anything into a ball, even a plastic bag," his father told AFP.

"It's been his passion since he was small, and it just grew until he became captain of the national team," he said, eyes beaming with pride.

For the captain's mother Hanaa, "if there had been no occupation, he could have reached an even higher level" in the sport.

She cited restrictions such as military roadblocks and the administrative red tape involved in him being allowed to go abroad to play -- procedures that can take "weeks", and with no guarantee of success.

Just getting all of the players together from the West Bank and Gaza is a struggle in itself, she said.

But once the kick-off whistle blows, such worries are sidelined, if only for the duration of play, as the spectators cheer the team on.

Monday's final score was disappointing -- a 2-1 victory for Qatar -- but by no means was it an ignominious exit from the tournament.

"I'm proud of my brother and the other players," said Ismail al-Battat.

"Getting to the last 16 is a good result. It's not the end of the road."

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