Eleven women from Britain and Germany travelled to the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank in October on a tour of friendship, solidarity and football.
The promise of participants in the “Freedom Through Football” tour was to share with the wider world the truth of life in Palestine. In particular, it was to highlight the story of women who play football in a country where football for women is far from a cultural norm.
This recent tour is part of our growing story of friendship and solidarity between the teams Republica Internationale (from Leeds in Britain) and the Easton Cowgirls and Cowboys (from Bristol) with Palestine. Our players have been travelling to the West Bank since 2007, with the women’s teams most recently visiting in 2014 and producing the Balls, Barriers and Bulldozers film.
Heading back to the West Bank this year, we were joined by friends from Frau Dortebecker (from Hamburg, Germany). We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to show solidarity with those living under occupation.
If we are honest, we had mixed success on the pitch. We won games against Hebron University, Beit Sahour and the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. But when it came to matching up against Sareyyet Ramallah and Diyar Academy (two teams that spend most of their time fighting each other to be crowned champions of the West Bank’s women’s league) we lost 8-2 and 13-6 respectively.
Luckily for us, it is not all about winning. Each game gave us the chance to meet some of the best footballers in Palestine and to better understand the challenges they face.
Many spoke of the difficulties playing football in a country where it’s still a “men’s game”. “It’s hard to be a woman and play football in Palestine,” one Diyar player told us. “Some people think that women shouldn’t play football, but we are challenging that and things are changing.”
However, the fight for equality on the pitch was often cast in the shadow of a wider fight for freedom in Palestine. For the women we met, the occupation created significant barriers to their ability to play where, and when, they want. Every checkpoint we passed was a reminder of the oppressive restrictions faced by Palestinians every day.
Before our first game against Diyar Academy, we travelled to Jubbet Al-Dhib, a village near Bethlehem. This incredible community, headed up by a women’s committee, had invited us to celebrate the delivery of a shipment of materials to rebuild a healthcare facility in the village.
However, as the delivery arrived, so did eight soldiers from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and two settlers from the nearby Israeli settlement.
We were questioned and asked for our passports, as the IDF soldiers absentmindedly fiddled with the safety locks on their guns and the settlers took photographs of everyone. Our hosts, however, were determined to continue with their promise of breakfast. So we sat, between the village and the IDF, eating fresh olives, zaatar-covered bread and grapes.
After a lengthy stand-off, we were offered our passports back on the condition that we leave the village immediately. We left, frustrated and confused.
We later discovered the IDF had confiscated the building materials and the lorry on which they had been transported. The village would have to start fundraising for the health clinic’s renovations from scratch.
After our match with Diyar, we talked to some of the players about what had happened. What had seemed a pretty unique event to us was evidently an everyday occurrence for our Palestinian friends. This type of harassment was such a prevalent part of everyday life for Palestinians across the West Bank that it barely registered as an event.
Off the pitch, we also spent time in villages in the South Hebron hills, many of which had been threatened with demolition by the Israeli government.
For two of us, one visit — to the Bedouin community of Um Al Khair — was particularly special. Last time they visited, the village had just been devastated by a demolition, the result of just one of many Israeli demolition orders placed on the community in the past few years.
This time, we were able to return for tea in the rebuilt community centre, before heading to the dusty football field for a kickabout. We found out that the difficulties faced by the community were ongoing.
An ever-growing and imposing Israeli settlement — Carmel — is, unfortunately all too literally, just a stone’s throw away. Residents in the village explained how the settlers throw stones at them while they are sleeping, just one example of the constant harassment they are subjected to.
The starkness of the divide between Um Al Khair and the settlement was clear. Watching the sun go down over the built, half-built, and demolished homes of Um Al Khair, the imposing wealth and privilege of the cream and red houses of the settlement was impossible to ignore.
Eventually, the football was booted over the 10-foot metal fence into the no-man’s-land between the village and the settlement. As it bounced towards the well-manicured lawns of Carmel, we knew this was one ball we weren’t getting back.
[Abridged from Red Pepper.]