The Case of Palestinian Sports in Lebanon: Where Are We Now?

By Ahmad Karakira

It was 1950. Two years after the Haganah Zionist militia (now called the Israeli Defense Force) exercised systematic ethnic cleansing against Palestinians with the help of the British mandate, Sobhi El Khatib and his wife, along with their seven children were forced to seek refuge. Moving from the city of Yafa, Sobhi and his family reached the coastal city of Gaza to take a ship to Lebanon.

A couple of years later, Jamal, the eighth child out of twelve was born in Beirut, Tariq El Jdideh district, home for several football clubs, away from his motherland, Palestine. Circumstances have lead Jamal to shine and become one of the best goal scorers that have played in Lebanon during the 70s, where he was nicknamed by the fans the “Brown Palestinian Gazelle”, and was praised by Pele, the Brazilian legend. His success in the country of cedars caught the attention of many well-known clubs and national teams abroad. He even had the chance to represent three national teams; Lebanon, Palestine, and Qatar. However, Jamal had to pay the price of being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.

Jamal El Khatib. Source: Nejmeh SC

The Palestinian Nakba, or the catastrophe, did not start in 1948. In fact, here we are, entering 103 years from the Balfour Declaration that paved the way to the ongoing ethnic cleansing and the Israeli occupation, when Britain promised “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, while the majority population was already Palestinian. Since then, Palestinians, whether in Palestine or in the diaspora (Shatat) have been living the Nakba till nowadays, each in their own way.

For Jamal, the Nakba was in the materialistic way Lebanese clubs treated him for the sake of benefiting from his talent. The Lebanese authorities would give Jamal a temporary Lebanese passport to represent Lebanon in international football events. The irony is that they would take back the passport from him once returning to Lebanon because he’s a Palestinian refugee. Another unprofessional thing Lebanese Nejmeh club officials would do, according to Jamal, is forbidding the player from transferring to other clubs abroad to guarantee that no one but them would benefit from his services. “Football gave me a lot of fame” says Jamal. “Thank God I was the best goal scorer and the best player, but Nejmeh club damaged me financially through preventing me from taking many chances abroad.”

Whether in Palestine or in the diaspora, Palestinian sports meet in one thing; problems that originate back to the ongoing Israeli occupation. In the occupied territories, the Israelis have always made it difficult and complex for Palestinian athletes to normally practice sports and represent their country abroad. In fact, Israel has occupied fields, destroyed and bombed sports facilities, restricted athletes from travelling, and even imprisoned and killed several ones as the visuals show.

Source: Visualizing Palestine

In Lebanon, there are many gifted Palestinian athletes who are on hold waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves in sports. However, the surrounding economic, social, and international conditions are not in their favour. In football for example, Mohamad Loubani, the Vice President of the Palestinian Association for Sports Media, described this era of Palestinian football as “the worst” and believes that “the Palestinian Football Association in Lebanon is not doing its job and is absolutely absent till now.” It’s been three years since the Palestinian clubs in Lebanon have participated in an official organized league by the association, whereas all other events are of different personal initiatives. Loubani explains that the situation of Palestinian sports in the diaspora lacks financial and moral support, as Palestinian athletes are being neglected. “Is it possible that Palestinian players cannot afford the price of transportation on the way to their training?” questioned Loubani.

“We have on this earth what makes life worth living”

Mahmoud Darwich, Palestinian poet, once said “we have on this earth what makes life worth living,” and within the rough times that Palestinian sports and athletes in Lebanon are experiencing, people of the stolen land refuse to surrender to desperation. In basketball, young Palestinian women are bringing up the Palestinian cause into local and international sports arenas through Nadi Shabab Filisteen (Palestine Youth Club). “I represent women’s freedom.” These were the words of Amena Al Madani, 19, player at Nadi Shabab Filisteen. “I’m changing the concept of early marriage and becoming a housewife out of the Palestinian society.”

Nadi Shabab Filisteen. Courtesy of Ahmad Karakira

Surprisingly, the idea of establishing the club in 2012 was due to a personal reason. Majdi Majzoub, founder and Coach of the clubs, established the women’s team because he wanted his very own daughter to practice basketball. In addition, the team’s purpose was to “shed the light on the Palestinian identity and create a safe space for Palestinian women to practice basketball away from bad habits,” says Majzoub.

In 2016, with the financial support of a group of Palestinian businessmen in the diaspora, Jamal, the “Brown Palestinian Gazelle” launched the first Palestinian national team in the diaspora. The team gathered 30 of the best Palestinian players living all over Lebanon. Jamal explained that the purpose of the initiative was to support the players and “preventing them from falling into smoking and drugs.” Unfortunately, according to Jamal, the initiative did not continue due to the lack of enthusiasm by the players that were not recognized for their efforts, especially from the Palestinian Football Association in Palestine.

Not only were Palestinians ethnically cleansed and kicked out from their motherland, in fact, they continue to face different obstacles while in the diaspora, especially in Lebanon. Palestinian sports are one of the many sectors that remain to struggle but refuse to give up.

Don’t forget to listen to the podacst episode about Palestinian sports in Lebanon: