Palestinians cancel soccer final after Israel denies Gaza team travel

GAZA (Reuters) - The Palestinian national soccer club championship was called off on Wednesday after Israel denied travel permits to Gaza players who had hoped to face off with their opponents in the occupied West Bank.

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Israel refused to let players from Gaza’s Khadamat Rafah club travel several dozen kilometres through its territory to play Nablus’s FC Balata in the central West Bank.

Israeli officials have not given a public explanation of the reasons. Some media reports have quoted Israeli security sources saying team members were believed to have links to terrorism.

Only 12 of the Gaza club’s 35 members were granted permits, just five of whom were players, the team said.

Wednesday’s FIFA-recognised Palestine Cup in the West Bank city of Nablus had already been postponed from July, when 31 of the Gaza club’s 35 players were denied permits, the team said.

The winner of Wednesday’s game between the Gaza and West Bank Cup holders would have represented Palestinians in the Asian Champions League, a qualifier for the FIFA Club World Cup.

“It’s a terrible feeling after training so hard,” said Ahmad Abu Thuhair, a Gaza footballer whose application was rejected.

An Israeli court on Monday upheld a decision from COGAT, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, to deny the Gaza players permits.

“Each permit application received by COGAT is individually and thoroughly evaluated, pursuant to the criteria that are published on COGAT’s website and subject to security checks,” COGAT said in an email, without providing further details.

It referred additional questions to the Shin Bet Israeli domestic intelligence service, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. It withdrew its settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, and the enclave is now run by the Islamist armed group Hamas, which Israel and the West designate a terrorist organisation. Citing security concerns, Israel maintains tight control over Gaza’s land and sea borders.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars over the past decade, and several other heavy rounds of violence have broken out. The two million Palestinians in the narrow coastal enclave must request permits from Israel to travel to the West Bank.

Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinians’ FIFA member association, accused Israel of trying “to paralyze Palestinian players and even the (Palestinian) sport system in general”.

Gisha, an Israeli rights group which petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to challenge COGAT’s decision, said the case illustrates what it called Israel’s “separation policy,” which it says “violates Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement.”

Gisha and other rights groups say the restrictions drive a wedge between Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek to unite in a state.

Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah