Beyond the Game: The Politics of Palestinian Football

Ibrahim Rabaia, The Palestine Research Center


Football has deep roots in the Palestinian national movement. It was one of the early arenas in which to represent statehood, as well as an important vehicle to represent colonial, refugee, and diaspora issues. Since its establishment in 1995, the Palestinian Authority (PA) invested in football, regarding it as a resistance domain in which to highlight Israeli violations against Palestinian athletes. Since 1993, it has achieved several political goals such as international recognition by FIFA and home matches inside Palestine.

This article explores the political roles of football in the Palestinian context. It follows the transformation in these roles, based on the political dynamics and challenges facing the Palestinian national movement and the ongoing realities of Israeli occupation. Palestinian football offers a window into the structural and functional shifts in the Palestinian national movement and the Palestinian issue in general.

Football in the Contemporary History of Palestine

Football in Palestine has been an important arena in the Arab-Zionist conflict since its earliest days, with important implications for the development of the sport. During by the British mandate, the Zionist movement established and dominated the Palestinian Football Federation (PFA) in 1928. In the following year, FIFA accepted the membership of the PFA. The national football team of this federation participated in the World Cup tournaments of 1934 and 1938. This federation tried to represent the Jewish identity in Palestine, as it unified the differences between the Maccabi and Hapoelclubs under one “national” federation.[1]

As a response to their exclusion from the PFA, Palestinians established their own federation, the General Palestinian Sport Association (GPSA), in 1931, but gained no international recognition. During the Great Revolt (1936–1939), the British authorities shut down several Palestinian football clubs, concerned that these entities could become platforms for political organization, and maintained selective acceptance for registering new clubs, refusing applications submitted by “extreme nationalists.”[2] Palestinian attempts to play in regional countries failed as well, due to FIFA restrictions. The GPSA was forced to freeze its activities, restructuring and renaming it “the Arab-Palestinian Sport Association” (APSA) in 1944.[3]That same year, increased political tensions and growing violence, mainly in the coastal cities, led the Islamic Sport Club of Jaffa to establish El-Najada, as a Palestinian resistance militia, to help protect the city from Zionist military attacks.

The APSA started its official attempts to join FIFA in 1944. The Palestinians worked with other Arab countries to discredit the Jewish federation, and to urge recognition of the Palestinian federation. In 1946, the Syrian and Egyptian federations contacted FIFA to register the Palestinian federation, supported by an official request from the Palestinians, who cited Jewish immigration and the restrictive policies of the British mandate to justify the need for a new federation.[4]

Post 1948 Football: Identity and Resistance

The Nakbah, which created the state of Israel, destroyed many Palestinian political, social, and economic structures. Sport was no exception. Between 1949 and 1967, Gaza had the only active Palestinian sports arena in which to contribute to the redefinition of identity questions. Palestinian athletes were aware of the importance of sports in bolstering national identity, forming national football teams and participating in the available regional competitions, such as the Pan Arab Games (PAG) from the first edition in 1953 to the fourth edition in 1965.[5] Haj Amin Al-Husaini and Yasser Arafat, the youth political leader at that time, attended the 1953 PAG in Egypt, with the Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, when Palestine won the bronze medal.[6]

In 1962, Palestinian sport leaders reestablished the APSA football committee in Gaza. Supported by Egypt, the Palestinians activated communications to join the international federation and the International Olympic Committee. These attempts were fruitless in football, with international organizations arguing that Palestine was not recognized as a state by the United Nations. However, international basketball, ping-pong, and amateur athletic federations recognized Palestinian membership in the 1960s.[7]

In 1969, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) created “the Supreme Council for Youth Welfare” (SCYW), which became an important player for displaying Palestinian resistance through sports. The SCYW had three major goals: more recognition from the international federation, more international presence, and more efforts to delegitimate Israeli sport.

Between 1971 and 1977, SCYW participated in more than 65 regional and international tournaments and meetings, with around 15 active federations. During each of these editions, the Palestinians struggled for international recognition.[8]Moreover, between 1974 and 1976, the Palestinian and Arab football federations worked on dismissing Israel from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which the Congress of the AFC eventually did during its meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1976.[9]

In addition, SCYW established local committees in countries hosting large numbers of Palestinian refugees, mainly Lebanon and Syria, to support establishing Palestinian clubs in the refugee camps. These clubs took the names of occupied Palestinian cities, such as Jericho, Haifa, Jaffa, Nablus, Tubas, and Jenin, the last of which became champion of the Palestinian league in Lebanon.

Through football and sport, SCYW reflected the goals of the PLO, keeping the memory of the Nakbah alive. With their various tournaments and competitions, the refugee camps became the hub of Palestinian football, and, especially in Lebanon, Palestinian football clubs became key institutions for qualifying and selecting new fighters in the revolution.

During the 1970s, Palestinian national football teams were formed in Lebanon and Syria, but competed only occasionally since the PFA was not recognized by FIFA.[10] They participated in some friendly tournaments, such as the Palestine Cup (Iraq 1971, Libya 1973, Tunisia 1975), Palestine Cup of Youth (Morocco 1983, 1985, Iraq 1989), the friendly tournament of Syria (1970), and friendly matches against several Arab countries.[11]

The political role of Palestinian sport in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) was intensified in the 1980s, and organized through two leagues, Rabitat al-Andiya, in the West Bank and Gaza, which were the legal representative bodies of football clubs in the OPT. These two leagues refused Israeli offers to join the Israeli sports collective institutions and worked intensively on representing Palestinian identity. The two leagues were keen on naming one champion for Palestine each year, after final qualification matches between the champions of Gaza and the West Bank. The two leagues worked on celebrating each national occasion with football matches between teams from Gaza and the West Bank, mostly played in Jerusalem.[12]

The OPT clubs ran covert political awareness programs and became important institutions for social, cultural, and political mobilization. They also created a voluntary work program, which became one of the most important youth organizing hubs. It is thus no surprise that the youth arm of the Fatah movement, “Shabibah,” was launched by Rafah Services Center in 1982.[13]

Palestinian Football after Oslo: The Way to “Statehood”

On October 8, 1993, a team formed from the stars of Palestinian football faced the French Veterans team in Jericho. Thousands of Palestinians attended to see their first “national team” after the Oslo Agreement (1993), and to watch French football stars such as Michel Platini. The Palestinian players raised their national flag, and wore the Kefiyyahfreely in a match on their land, for the first time since 1967.[14]

This match was the start of a new phase for Palestinian football, reflecting the political and social struggle for independence and to emphasize statehood on the ground, with the PFA submitting its proposal to FIFA four times in the same month in October 1993. This attempt succeeded in achieving a temporary membership, in 1995, before getting full membership in the 51st FIFA Congress in June 1998.[15] In 1999, FIFA President Joseph Sepp Blatter visited Palestine and met with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Blatter carried Palestinian demands—allowing freedom of movement and removing barriers to establishing sport infrastructure—to Israel and discussed these with the Israeli minister of regional cooperation, Shimon Peres, but with no results.[16]

In the 2000s, the PFA and the PA continued to reject the Israeli sport washing attempts, and, in 2005, the PA announced that it would implement sanctions on five Palestinian players who participated in a Palestinian-Israeli joint team match against Barcelona in Camp Nou.[17] This was part of the anti-normalization campaign in sport, which had been developed and intensified after the spark of the second Palestinian Intifada (2000), and the creation of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2005.

The Palestinians, through football, brought the Palestinian-Chilean community closer to their homeland. Palestino, a Palestinian football club in Chile, became one of the most popular football clubs in Palestine, and more Palestinians from Chile contributed to their homeland politically, economically, and socially. In 2014, Palestino played in a new shirt, bearing a map of historical Palestine on the back. Jewish organizations complained to the Chilean football federation, which banned Palestino from wearing the shirt.[18]

In November 2017, Palestinian football received political attention when the Palestinian national team topped its Israeli counterpart, for the first time ever, in the monthly FIFA global ranking. Palestine was ranked 82, while Israel was ranked 98.[19] The Israeli media begrudged this Palestinian success, protesting to FIFA that some in the PFA were former prisoners of Israeli jails, or that they had Israeli citizenship.[20]

The PFA and BDS urged FIFA to ban Israeli settlement clubs, and, in 2016, 66 EU parliamentarians signed a letter sent to the FIFA President to ban Israeli settlement clubs.[21] Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s office pressured President Abbas, through the US, to drop the Palestinian proposal to sanction the settlement clubs, but the Palestinian president refused.[22]

The PFA worked on tracking any Israeli sport activities in the OPT. In 2018, Netanyahu urged to move a friendly match between the Israeli national team and Argentina to Jerusalem. The PFA refused the match as it had to be played on occupied territories, which led to the match being cancelled. The president of the PFA Jibril Rjoob said: “The Israelis tried to use Messi and those stars from Argentina, and I would like to thank them and appreciate their decision, which I think was on the right track.”[23]


Palestinian football is part of the sociopolitical structures in Palestine; it reflects the shifts and transformations in Palestinian politics under Israeli occupation. The post-1995 period witnessed continuous developments in the political role of football. The first was to get FIFA’s recognition and raise the national flag in Zurich, and play the national anthem in formal international tournaments, which had been achieved by 1998. The second was to break the Israeli colonial siege on Palestine, through football, by allowing international teams and delegations to visit Palestine, which happened after 2008. The third was to monitor and prosecute the Israeli violations against Palestinian sport.

Palestinian football got more attention within Palestinian politics since 2011, when the Palestinian leadership adopted a new strategy of diplomatic resistance through international organizations. Thus, Palestine hosted more international matches in the West Bank, received more delegations, and utilized its membership in the regional, continental, and international football organizations, mainly to monitor and prosecute the Israeli violations against the Palestinian football, since Palestine had achieved the first and the second goal.

[1] Maccabi clubs represented the middle and working classes, which disagreed with many social programs, and refused the domination of Hestadroot (the Israeli Labor Union) on Israeli society; Hapoel clubs represented the labor social class, which was managed by Hestadroot. Haim Kaufman and Ilan Tamir, “The Establishment of the Eretz Israel Football Association,” Israel Affairs 26, no. 4 (2020): 501–514.

[2] Tamir Sorek, Arab Soccer in a Jewish State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 18.

[3] Issam Khalidi “FIFA and Palestine: Regarding Injustice and Disregard for Justice,” June 20, 2022,

[4] Issam Khalidi, 100 Years of Football in Palestine (Ramallah: Alshorouq, 2013), 68.

[5] Khalidi, 100 Years of Football in Palestine.

[6] Alkhalidi P. 161.

[7] Ibrahim S. I. Rabaia, “Sport and Politics in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Politics, Awareness, Institutionalization, and Resistive Adaptation (1967–1995),” Omran 42, no. 11 (Autumn 2022).

[8] “The Achievements of the SCYM (1971–1977),” Youth and Sport Magazine 3 (March 1978): 6–7.

[9] Rabaia, “Sport and Politics in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

[10] After 1948, the PFA changed its name to the Israeli Football Federation, and the SCYM, after 1965, established the Palestinian Football federation.

[11] Alkhalidi. P. 249-250.

[12] Rabaia, “Sport and Politics in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

[13] Rabaia, “Sport and Politics in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

[14] Mustafa Felfel, “From the Palestinian Memory: The Win of the Palestinian National Team on the French Team,” Al-Aqsa Sport, March 3, 2010,

[15] Bader Maki, “Palestine and the Story of its Acceptance in FIFA,” The New Arab, November 27, 2022,

[16] Alkhalidi. P. 265.

[17] The Palestinian Authority Intends to Sanction the Players of ‘Peace Team,’” FilGoal, December 7, 2005.

[18] “Chile Bans Palestino Football Club ‘Anti-Israel’ Shirt,” BBC, January 21, 2014,

[19] “Palestinians Overtake Israel in FIFA World Soccer Rankings,” Times of Israel, November 23, 2017,

[20] “The Palestinian Sport Success Strains the Israeli Media,” Wattan, November 23, 2017,

[21] “66 EU Parliamentarians Urge FIFA to Ban Israeli Settlement Clubs,” Times of Israel, September 9, 2016,

[22] Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu in Call to FIFA President: Drop Palestinian Bid to Sanction Settlement Teams,” Haaretz, May 8, 2017,

[23] Ori Lewis and Ali Sawafta, “Palestinians Hail Argentina and Messi for Calling off Jerusalem Match,” Reuters, June 6, 2018,”