By John Harvey – Olympia, WA
This February I had the privilege of spending a month with the people of Gaza, Palestine. As a representative of Sister Cities International, I was working to establish the foundations for sister city relations between cities in Gaza and the United States. I met with government representatives and social support groups, made new friends, and despite the dire circumstances, spent many memorable evenings sharing the fine hospitality and warm company of the good folk in Gaza.
As a supporter of the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project and a friend of Rachel Corrie’s family, my travels took me to Rafah, where my friends Khaled and Adnan live. Adnan was working on a special new project, so Khaled and I set out to see him. We walked the narrow streets of Rafah-camp, passing gangs of barefoot children playing marbles. Stately gatherings of the older men sat in the sun, holding forth on the events of the moment. Our conversation covered familiar ground: the ever-present Israeli occupation and the crushing yearlong siege, designed to grind down the Palestinian morale. But it was the vicious Hamas/Fatah infighting, and the wound it cut in Gaza society, that were foremost in out conversation.
“The situation is bleak. When Rachel stood with us, we resisted the occupation as best we could,” said Khaled. “In different ways, surely–but fundamentally united as Palestinians struggling for justice. The clashes changed that. Now there is little trust between neighbors and communities. Fearing betrayal and violence, we have retreated into ourselves, trusting few outside our own factions.”
We arrived at the border between Gaza and Egypt: a wasteland where Israel demolished whole neighborhoods to create a ‘security’ buffer.
Five years ago, two kilometers South-East along this wretched stretch, Rachel Corrie was killed defending a house while Khaled’s wife and children watched from inside. Looking Southeast, I could see the border wall Hamas forces had triumphantly demolished in January. 800,000 Palestinians flowed through the breach, drinking a brief taste of liberation, and buying as much food, gas, clothing and school supplies as possible.
I expected this harsh, broken landscape. What I didn’t expect amidst the rubble and devastation was a cleared space with a pick-up game of soccer in progress.
Adnan greeted us warmly from the sidelines. “So you have come to see our field? Good!”
The ‘field’ was a level area over the rubble of what was once a neighborhood of the Yibna refugee camp. Adnan received permission from the owner to grade it at his own expense. He poured a layer of sand and put up goal posts at either end. ‘We hope he lets us use it for a long time,’ Adnan said. I smiled wryly: Gaza infrastructure is shattered. In no way would the Rafah municipality be able to make anything of this field any time soon.
We chatted and watched the game. Some of the players were in sandals, others had mismatched shoes; incredibly, most ran the rough, dry expanse in bare feet. I saw one genuine pair of soccer cleats flashing extravagantly on the hard packed field.
Adnan filled me in: his dream is to create a space for youth and families to gather safely and have some fun. “Our playground is not the only one in the area,” he explained, “but what makes it distinct is that young people from different political colors [Fatah, Hamas, or PFLP factions] come almost every day, not to talk about politics, but to practice sports with each other. Other playgrounds attract only those who are affiliated with a certain political line.”
The great fear is that factional divisions are driving the young in the wrong direction. “There is an increase in rage amongst the youth as a result of infighting and lawlessness that have recently taken place in the Gaza Strip,” Adnan told me. “The result is a retreat from the basic values of good citizenship, democracy, participation and humanitarian action, all replaced by the exchange of accusations and violent actions.”
To inaugurate the field as an all-community space, Adnan and Khaled hope to put on a soccer tournament: “The Rachel Corrie Soccer Tournament.” Andan was a great admirer of Rachel Corrie, and they had worked together with the youth of Rafah.
“Rachel did not think in terms of this faction or that faction,” Khaled explained. “She joined us in our struggle for justice as Palestinians.”
Their enthusiasm was infectious, and we immediately began to talk in hopeful tones about how the tournament could come about. I suggested a fundraiser in the US: with enough support, the field could get a re-grade and some nets. Adnan suggested providing shoes, socks, jerseys, a sports duffel, and even medallions for as many as 80 young players. If successful, we would establish the blueprint for many more Ramadan soccer events on a play-field specifically designed to foster unity in the Rafah community.
And why not to bring this success to other cities in Gaza?
“Why not an all-Gaza soccer tournament?”
“What about a women’s league?”
“We can include other sports.”
Adnan’s vision of a Ramadan soccer tournament had taken hold of me, and I returned to the United States determined to do what I could to help. For me, it is a way to reach over the wall and break the Israeli siege of Gaza, and a means to help prevent the fragmentation and collapse of Gazan society.
To find out more about the Rachel Corrie Soccer Tournament, and to help us reach our goal, please visit our website.
-John Harvey is a Buddhist Priest and a dedicated supporter of justice for the Palestinian people. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: John_Harvey@Comcast.net.