An insult to the soccer kids of Gaza

Ciaran Tierney
6 min readJun 29, 2023

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Children from Gaza on a soccer trip to Ireland in 2016. Photo by John Kelly.

For the most talented young footballers in Gaza, lockdowns, cancelled games, and travel restrictions were a fact of life long before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19.

In 2018 and 2019, excitement rose among the children of the Al-Helal academy in Northern Gaza, aged between ten and 14, when their coaches informed them that they would be undertaking one-week summer tours of Ireland.

On both occasions, excitement ended in crushing disappointment for the talented boys, who come from all over the crowded Gaza Strip to play for the academy. They were denied exit visas through Israel and, as a result, they couldn’t travel. For much of the past few years, the border crossing with Egypt has been closed to Palestinians, too.

It did not matter than Gaza Action Ireland had organised two successful trips over the previous two summers or that the cost of their travels would be covered by well-wishers from across Ireland.

They simply weren’t allowed to travel, an announcement which was met with stoicism by the children. Growing up in Palestine, you learn to live with crushing disappointments and frustrations which would be unthinkable to Irish children.

Not being able to travel to Ireland for a week of football is hardly a huge issue among Gaza’s two million residents, half of whom are children and 75% of whom are refugees from what is now Israel.

In 2016, when some of the boys did make it to Ireland, they were guests of honour at a Galway United home game and even got to meet the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

Yet, even then, one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was cruelly denied permission to travel. Karam suffered horrific facial injuries during an Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009 and adult coaches could only wonder if the Israeli authorities did not want Irish parents to see his injuries.

They were never told why Karam, of all the children due to travel, was singled out to be refused permission.

And yet the boys remembered Karam in song each day and sent him videos from their wonderful trip around Ireland, in which they won every game.

Irish parents at the games were taken aback by how small and under-nourished the Gaza boys appeared to be compared to Irish children of the same age, but they also marvelled at their skills as they set about trouncing teams from Irish clubs from Dublin to Tipperary to Kinvara on the Clare border.

Only two adult trainers were allowed to travel with the 14 boys from the academy. Seven adults — including a child psychologist — were supposed to accompany the little boys, but the Israelis denied five of them permission to travel.

Many of these children have been traumatised by war. In 2014, more than 2,250 Palestinians — 551 of them children — were killed in the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

Even the Al-Helal ground where the young boys train has not been immune from the conflict, as it was bombed twice by Israel in 2012 and 2014.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has called on Robbie Keane to reverse his decision to join a club in Israel.

There are people in Ireland who would love to nurture connections between youth academies in Palestine and soccer clubs in Ireland — that dream seems impossible in the context of a siege in Gaza which has restricted movement in and out of the strip since 2007 or the military occupation of the West Bank in which footballers have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Just last week, a talented footballer with third division side Turmus Aya was killed by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank. An electrician who played soccer at the weekends, Omar Abu Qatin (25) leaves behind a wife and two children.

He was shot in the chest and killed after Israeli soldiers showed up to support extremist illegal settlers who began attacking Palestinian homes. Witnesses said Omar was “totally unarmed” and standing a kilometre away from the Israeli soldiers.

In May 2021, the boys of the Al-Helal academy were cowering under their beds again during the third major aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip during their short lifetimes.

Gaza health officials revealed that 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, had been killed and more than 1,900 wounded in the aerial bombardments which destroyed buildings in a place which is smaller than Co. Louth.

In the same onslaught, two members of the Palestinian national team, Mohammed Saleh and Mohammed Balah, had their homes destroyed in aerial bombardments by Israeli forces.

“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the time.

When Gaza was being blitzed from the air two years ago, people in Galway reached out to Ayed Awni Abu-Ramadan, chairman of the Al-Helal club, who had befriended them through their mutual love of football. He had spent nights sheltering from bombings with his wife and young daughter in one of the most crowded places on earth.

He was afraid to leave his house as the bombs rained down from above.

“God bless Ireland and its people,” he said in a message to his Irish friends. “Thank you so much for your continued support. To get calls from Ireland or to see messages on social media relieves a lot, because it shows us that the people of Ireland are standing with us, unlike most other people who are not really caring about the situation. From here, I send you all our love and friendship.”

I thought of Ayed and the youngsters in his academy this week when it was announced that former Irish international Robbie Keane has taken up a new coaching role with Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, just up the road from Gaza.

How must the children of Gaza feel to see the most decorated player in Ireland’s history take up a coaching role in the land which has oppressed them and their families, denying them the right to return to their homes and villages, for decades?

“I don’t want to get into politics,” said Keane this week, following criticism from Ireland that he should not be working in Israel.

“I’m here as a football man and someone that loves the game.”

Ayed is a football man.

Omar was a football man, until his death last week.

Karam and the other Gazan children love football.

But, unlike Robbie, they don’t get to choose where they can play, due to closed borders, military checkpoints, and restrictions on their right to travel.

Robbie has joined a club which, since being taken over by Canadian Zionist Mitchell Goldhar in 2009, has featured fewer and fewer Palestinian or Arab players.

Some of the club’s ultras, the Maccabi Fanatics, have been filmed attacking protesters against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

Nine years ago, some sections of the club’s support shouted racist slurs at Mahran Radi, a Palestinian who played for the club. Slogans such as “We don’t want Arabs at Maccabi!” and “Radi is dead!” were sprayed on walls in Tel Aviv.

Of course, Robbie cannot be blamed for racist elements among the supporters of his new club, but he can be criticised for failing to show solidarity with people who have been living under occupation, colonisation, and what Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have described as a system of Apartheid for too long.

“Principled Irish solidarity plays a leading role today in the Palestinian-led movement to dismantle Israeli apartheid,” says the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

“It is no surprise that Keane’s decision was met with immediate and widespread condemnation from Irish fans and human rights supporters on social media.”

I have seen the argument that Robbie has to start his managerial career somewhere. But I can’t help feeling that his appointment this week is an insult to the talented children of Gaza and the adults in Palestine and Ireland who have found it so difficult to give them a modicum of hope in this unfair and unequal world.

* A digital journalist based in Galway, Ireland, Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award in 2018. He has volunteered in Nicaragua and made numerous trips to the Middle East.

Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ciarantierney or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

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Ciaran Tierney

A former newspaper journalist, with an interest in human rights, travel, and current affairs, Ciaran won the 2018 Irish Current Affairs Blog of The Year award.