Bethlehem2Belfast was born from an idea that would challenge the restrictions of movement imposed on Palestinians. Whilst we have shown solidarity in the stands and held political education nights on Palestine we believed more could be done to challenge the occupation using football as a vehicle.
The initial step was to secure the eight visas that the UK consulate requires to allow entry. Having spoken with many friends in Palestine, we knew this would be one of the most difficult obstacles. The UK consulate only accepts visa requests one month prior to departure date, meaning straight away the ability to book advanced flights at a cheaper rate is diminished. Each visa request is charged at around £84 per person per request, of which are commonly denied, again making it even harder for those with lower incomes who wish to travel abroad. To ensure as many of the group were granted visas, a letter of invitation had to be sent from an official public organisation, explaining why the group were coming, who they would stay with and that all costs including food and accommodation would be paid for. The UK consulate made it as difficult as possible for the group to travel, finally granting all eight visas the morning they were due to leave, two days before the tournament began. Undeterred and all too familiar with the obstacles put in front of them, the youth travelled late in to the night once school had finished and work had ended for the day. The group made their way from Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem to Amman, Jordan as we frantically tried to secure the cheapest possible flights. As Palestinian citizens from the Occupied West Bank, they are not permitted to travel to Tel-Aviv, within 1948 Israel, to board a flight and, thus, must travel to Amman. Yet another obstacle lies in front of the group, they must pass through the illegal Israeli checkpoint separating the West Bank and Jordan. Knowing of the possibility not all of the group would be permitted to pass through to Jordan, we again had to wait before booking any flights in case some didn’t make it through. For a brief time our suspicion became reality, as three of the boys were held by the Israeli Occupation Force for questioning, lasting over four hours before finally allowing them to pass through to Jordan. It was only then that we could begin booking the flights, around 1am the following morning. Palestinians from the West Bank are not afforded the luxury of stopping in other countries for connecting flights. Only when paying a further £100 on top of the £84 visa can they land in any airport other than the country where the visa has been granted. This meant we were forced to pay for direct flights from Heathrow from Amman and a connecting flight to Belfast. As the group slept for only few hours in a hotel in Amman, all eight flights were booked at around 3am that morning. Finally we received a call from Belfast to hear all had arrived. Months of fundraising, planning and preparation to the very last hour had paid off.
The group stayed with different families in Belfast who kindly welcomed them into their homes. The day before the tournament the Palestinians were in the street playing games with all of the local kids well into the night. The reception they received the morning of the tournament was amazing to witness, as young kids from Belfast ran over hugging and embracing the Palestinians, each with their faces lit up from the day before. Undoubtedly, the trip made a lasting impression for both the local community and the group as stories were shared and memories made.
The Palestinians quickly asserted themselves as challengers in the tournament winning back to back games. The joyful laughter quickly changed to an all too familiar eagerness to win. The team were finally knocked out in the semi-finals, however, they continued to play at the side of the pitch with the local kids.
Before the party arranged by the Anti-Racism World Cup, the Green Brigade and Palestinians gave a talk detailing how the project arose and the difficulties faced in getting the group from Bethlehem to Belfast. One of the Palestinian players addressed the packed out room and shared stories about the group and the camp itself. He relayed the importance of projects like this in challenging the apartheid regime and thanked those in the room for making it possible. He gave personal accounts of conditions within the camp and the continual encroachment and harassment of the occupation forces. Tear gas, water cannons, steel coated rubber bullets, live ammunition and targeted assassinations just some of the means the occupation strangles the camp confined within 8 meter high concrete walls and sniper towers. As he concluded his speech he hailed the project a success but reiterated the hypocrisy of the group’s ability to reach Belfast only to be denied entry to Jerusalem just 6 miles from Bethlehem. The crowd rose and applauded in a truly unforgettable moment.
The group of six boys and two girls had a huge impact on everyone they met. For most this had been their first time out of Palestine. Of the eight, two have been shot with live ammunition and four have spent a combined period of ten years and seven months languishing in Israeli prisons, yet this only represents a small fraction of the arbitrary punishment forced upon Palestinians.
This week 13 year old Aboud Shadi was murdered by an Israeli Occupation sniper on his way home from school in Aida Refugee Camp, the same refugee camp as those who travelled to Belfast. Aboud was shot through the chest, close to his heart as he stood meters from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency building. Yet another life taken by the occupation.
Whilst Aboud’s death serves as a chilling reminder of the levels of oppression routinely imposed on Palestinians, our response must be one of increased support and solidarity. It must motivate us further to challenge the occupation at every turn, to pressure our government, to support boycott, divestment and sanctions, to stand beside the oppressed. This project is merely one example.
The Green Brigade would like to extend our thoughts to Aboud’s family, to our friends in Aida Refugee Camp and to the martyrs this week who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in recent escalations in violence by the apartheid regime.
Until the Last Rebel