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Palestinians say high-profile football playoff shelved

Israel bans Gaza, West Bank footballers Palestinian Cup

Ramallah (Palestinian Territories): A football match scheduled for today that had been seen as a symbolic step towards Palestinian unity has been postponed indefinitely over a dispute with Israeli officials, the Palestinian Football Association said.

Following Thursday’s goalless draw in Gaza between Al-Ahli from the West Bank city of Hebron and Gaza’s Shejaiya — their first match in 15 years — a second leg was planned for today in Hebron.

West Bank and Gaza Strip teams play in separate leagues, in which Al-Ahli and Shejaiya emerged as champions. The winner will be eligible to represent Palestine in international competitions.

But the Gaza Strip, with which Israel fought a devastating 50-day war last summer, and the West Bank are separated by 60 kilometres (40 miles) of Israeli territory and Gazans are subject to rigorous border restrictions.

Israel asked four of Shejaiya’s 37-member delegation to submit to security interviews as a condition of leaving the territory.

The Palestinian Football Association, chaired by former West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub, and Shejaiya club categorically refused.

“Four of the players needed to pass a preliminary inquiry and for this purpose, their crossing was coordinated for yesterday. Rajoub cancelled,” said a statement from COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit that coordinates with Gaza.

“Following the first cancellation, the crossing was coordinated once again for today,” it added. “In the morning they cancelled the crossing again.”

Rajoub accused the Israeli security services of “a personally directed attack” against him.

Israeli authorities “told us that four players could not go out for security reasons, and they wanted to question them”, he said.

The two sides are in touch in the hope that the match can take place in the next few days, Rajoub said, but added that his association would not agree to security checks for players.

“An athlete can enter and exit Gaza without security interference, according to the rules of FIFA,” he said, referring to football’s world governing body.

Restrictions on the movement of players is one of the reasons the Palestinians have pushed FIFA, of which Palestine has been a member since 1998, to penalise Israel.

Islamist movement Hamas rules Gaza, which is under a strict Israeli blockade, while the Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas is based in the West Bank.

Attempts at reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions have proved futile, but the matches on Thursday and Sunday were being seen as symbolic victories over the bitter political divisions and the Israeli blockade.