GAZA (Reuters) - The Palestinian Football Federation postponed the final Palestine Cup game between the champions from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank after Israel denied entry permits to some of the Gaza players, Palestinian sports officials said.
The Shejaia club from the Gaza Strip must pass through an Israeli border crossing to reach the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, where Sunday’s game was scheduled to be played, and to do so needs approval from Israel.
Israeli authorities said they had allowed 33 of 37 players to cross but wanted to ask further questions of the remaining four. They were invited for screening on both Thursday and Friday but refused, an Israeli border affairs spokeswoman said.
“They will be allowed to cross on Sunday after questions,” spokeswoman Hadar Horen said. The border is closed on Saturdays.
The Palestinian federation said the game was now delayed until further notice.
“It became clear seven people, including four players, were not on the list and therefore, the entire mission can’t leave Gaza without them,” said Ala Shammaly, a member of the media office for the Shejaia team.
Sunday’s championship was to be a follow-up of a match on Thursday between Al-Ahly, the top team in the West Bank and Gaza’s champion Shejaia.
The game, which ended in a goalless draw, had been the first such visit since a Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000.
Whichever team wins the title will play in the next Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.
“As always the Israeli occupation wanted to spoil our happiness,” said Abdel-Salam Haniyeh of the Palestinian Higher Council of Sport. “Effort by the Palestinian FA is continuing to allow the joy that began in Gaza from reaching out to Hebron.”
Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which handles border crossings and permits, said the team’s decision not to cross was “another cheap provocation” by the chairman of the Palestinian FA, Jibril Al-Rajoub.
“The Palestinians make cynical use of sport and in the end the ones hurt are the Palestinian public,” it said.
Rajoub said on Thursday he had received a letter from FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter saying he would work to remove obstacles that may hinder the holding of the final game.
At the annual FIFA Congress in May, Palestine threatened to call for a vote for Israel’s suspension from world soccer but it dropped its motion at the last minute and FIFA agreed to send observers to monitor the situation.
Israel made a commitment to allow freer movement of Palestinian sport personnel and Palestinian sport officials say such a commitment was now being tested.
“It is time Israel lifts its hand off Palestinian sport,” said Haniyeh.
The PFA has complained that Israel restricts the movement of players and officials to and from the Palestinian territories. Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, although it says it has eased travel recently.
Writing by Nidal Almughrabi, Editing by Angus MacSwan