Palestinian soccer delegation's own goal

On Tuesday night, the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program aired a documentary film, Pitch Battle, which chronicled the journey of the Palestine football team to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. As I watched this film, I was reminded of a meeting I had in Canberra roughly a year ago.

It was with a federal politician who briefly took me back to a meeting a few weeks earlier with representatives of a prominent Australian pro-Palestinian lobby group.

“They sat right where you’re sitting now,” the politician began. “Right on this very couch where you’re sitting now. And do you know what they said to me?” I couldn’t wait to know what they’d said. “They actually defended Hamas and one of them even said that Israel had no right to exist. Can you believe it?” I could but I feigned surprise.

I know why that conversation ran through my mind as I watched the documentary about the Palestinian football team. Just like the footballers and team officials profiled in the documentary, these lobbyists presented a façade of tolerance and moderation but believe in something violent, destructive and inhumane. I pictured their warm handshakes as they entered the parliamentary office, charming small-talk accompanied by probing, soulful looks with twinkling eyes, moving personal stories designed to build rapport and extract compassion. But scratch at the veneer ever so slightly, draw out their true feelings with a few open questions and you have them defending a terrorist organisation and denying the right of our people to a national home in our ancestral land.

The football team’s media officer, Amr Hannoun, featured prominently throughout the film, illustrated this perfectly.

So endearing with his jovial disposition, glistening curly locks, plump belly and radiant smile. And yet, while taking the sun on Sydney harbour, Hannoun reveals his true nature. He defends suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, the deliberate, cold-blooded murders of Jewish civilians, including women and children. “We have to kill them,” he flashes. The veneer cracks.

Later, Amr is filmed in the Canberra countryside. Just a few kilometres from the place where the Palestine lobby group implored the politician to see the humane side of Hamas and denied Israel’s basic legitimacy.

For a moment amidst Amr’s banter with his close friend, you forget his earlier blood-curdling statements. His face is warm and charming once more. He gently ribs his mate for refusing to eat kangaroo. He hops around mimicking a gazelle. They remind me of a comedy duo. The straight man and the gregarious, loveable larrikin. Then a curious twist.

Standing there amidst the picturesque gentle slopes and green-brown valleys of our capital city, perfect Australiana, Amr is told that the cameraman is Israeli. The warmth dissipates. Talk turns to the conflict. The Israeli cameraman looks uneasy. He was there to do a job and is now propelled into an uncomfortable conversation. “What is the solution?” he nervously asks. Amr turns to his friend, “what do you think, should Israel exist?” He asks him. His friend, who we are told earlier lost two brothers fighting Israel, is taciturn, reserved but thoughtful. He gives a measured response.

Amr steps in. He is less diplomatic. “We need our land back from the river to the sea,” he insists. He says it as though they’re arguing over a parking space or a table in a café. The significance of demanding “the river to the sea” may be lost on the uninitiated but to those who understand the geography and the slogans, it is eminently clear. The annihilation of Israel. No Jewish State in any borders.

The other leading man in the film is the head of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril Rajoub. The narrator notes that “whenever the team travels Jibril Rajoub is there to punch home the political message.” We see him coaching the players, but not to hit the top corner, rather to politicise the game and extract maximum sympathy for the Palestinian cause from western reporters. Under Rajoub’s patriarchal gaze, the players tell the assembled journalists their personal stories of suffering at the hands of the Israelis. “The occupation” is inserted into every interview. They lay the foundations and then Rajoub steps in. FIFA must expel Israel, he tells the journalists. Just like the Asian confederacy expelled Israel back in 1974. Israelis mustn’t be allowed to play football with other countries.

Dan Goldberg, the Haaretz journalist and former editor of this paper, who produced the film, has told the story of a team of plucky underdogs, fighting against formidable foes. Goldberg has shown us the struggles of the team as an allegory of the struggles of the Palestinian people. But in reality, rather than seeing the team through the prism of the conflict, we emerge seeing the conflict through the words and experiences of the team. They have shown us the very tragedy of the Palestinian people and explained the failure of the Palestinian national movement.

It is not enough for the Palestinians to achieve full-member status in FIFA and play on the world stage. They demand and lobby for Israel’s expulsion. It is not enough for Amr the media man to crave a national home for his people, just as the Jewish people once did. He demands the river, he demands the sea and he demands every scrap of earth in between.

The Palestinian cause fails to win broad public support because it is predicated on destruction rather than creation, on denying the rights of others rather than establishing rights for themselves, and as Amr ably demonstrated, given the opportunity, it will even defend the indefensible, the deliberate killing of the innocent.

Dan Goldberg tried to show us the compelling tale of an underdog, but his characters were too honest in their hatred to hold our sympathy.

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