Why Should Palestinians Write Their Sports History?

By Issam Khalidi

Palestinian modern history is unique, not only because of the Nakba (i.e. catastrophe) of 1948, and the expulsion of the 750,000 refugees from their land, but because this history consistently has been a subject of concealment, distortion and theft. After the Nakba, Israel sought to put an aura on its crimes it committed against the Palestinian people. As part of this aura, in order to justify these crimes, Israel did not only attempt to distort history, but seized tons of documents and locked them in its archives for decades and made them accessible to Israelis only. This reminds me of what Edward Said wrote:“By what moral or political standard are we expected to lay aside our claims to our national existence, our land, our human rights? In what world is there no argument when an entire people is told that it is juridically absent, even as armies are led against it, campaigns conducted against even its name, history changed so as to ‘prove’ its nonexistence?”

Throughout decades sport was a mirror that reflected Palestinian reality; it portrayed this reality with all its details throughout different historical stages. Sports development has often been parallel to and overlapping with political developments. Before Nakba, there were some 65 athletic clubs in Palestine; approximately 55 of them were members of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation (PSF established in 1931, re-established in 1944). Palestinians always sought through sports a sense of national identity, independence and world recognition. At the time when the world did not recognize the Palestinian people after the Nakba sport was one of the most important means to prove their existence and to maintain their identity.

Reading Zionist literature on the history of Palestine as well as the history of sports in Palestine, one might get the impression that Palestine was void of Palestinians. If such histories do mention the Palestinians, they invariably try to depict these Palestinians as lacking any cultural, social, or athletic aspect. They appear to assert that the Zionists populated the region, and graced it with civilization and modernization — that they brought sports and culture to the primitive people who had hitherto known nothing of either of these refinements. Efforts such as these to distort reality and rewrite history are not new. Indeed, the Zionist athletic leadership worked to marginalize the Palestinians in the sports sector.

And, even if they mention the Arabs, they portray them as mixing sports with politics, and refusing to cooperate with the Zionists in sports; as thankless rebels against Mandate authorities that freed them from the yoke of the Ottomans and brought them modernity and civilization.

Unfortunately, I have recently discovered some misinformation on some Palestinian websites (in Arabic and English) about sports in Mandate Palestine especially the Palestine Football Association that was established in 1928 and was dominated by the Zionists, as well as the participation of Palestine in the 1934 (with Egypt) and 1938 (with Greece) World Cup tournaments. Such misinformation generally comes from individuals who are not familiar with history of sports in Palestine and must be corrected.

Also, Wikipedia in Arabic does not mention any historical facts before 1948, except in two lines of information about the current Palestine Football Association: established in 1962; it joined FIFA in 1998, and the Asian Football Federation in 1998.

In our current time, Israel boasts that it participated in the World Cup tournaments of 1934 and 1938; that “Israel” or “Eretz Israel” (Land of Israel) – of course not Palestine – had played five international matches prior to 1948. This information does not include the fact that no Arab player was among the Palestinian flagship team at that time.

It’s a matter of fact, that Arab sports lagged behind Jewish sports. The awareness of the Zionist leadership about the benefits of sports was higher than among the Arabs. The Jews came to Palestine from developed industrial societies. Definitely, they brought with them physical culture, sports, and the culture of administrative planning and organization. However, this ‘superiority’ does not justify their exclusivity and domination of sports, and their denial of Palestinian existence.

The PFA’s joining FIFA in 1929 was a valuable opportunity for the sake of making the Zionist identity prominent and representing Palestine on the international level. With the cooperation and support of the British side, the Zionists were able to represent “Palestine” on the international level in the World Cup in both 1934 and 1938. The reader must be made aware that “Arab” Palestine didn’t compete with Egypt in 1934; rather, it was the Zionists who competed with Egypt. They wanted to represent Palestine (in all regional and international competitions) and make it appear “Zionist” in front of the world. They wore shirts that carried the name ‘Eretz Israel’ the Land of Israel. In these competitions, Zionist flag was used as a symbol for inspiring national sentiments. It consisted of two equal horizontal stripes of white and blue bearing in the center the device known as the ‘Hebrew Magen David’ – the Star of David.

Probably, the euphoria of victory, which the Israeli scholars enjoyed throughout the years after 1948, inspired them to write history as victors. As Edward Said puts it “Together these successes of Zionism have produced a prevailing view of the question of Palestine that almost totally favors the victor, and takes hardly any account of the victim.”

However, on the other side, Christopher King argues in his article “Palestinians Write Your History”:

“There is a clever saying that in warfare, history is written by victors. Like many such aphorisms, it is wrong. History is written by those who write it. Fortunately, with historians such as Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said and many others who have undertaken the task of retrieving Palestinian history, the Palestinians themselves may soon be victors.”

No one can erase the history of any nation. Palestine and Palestinians are a historical fact that could not be erased and hard to transcend. There are millions of documents and facts proving their history. And we don’t even need them, for our very existence is a proof.

Obtaining complete knowledge about the history of Palestine could not be accomplished without the integration of all its aspects: political, economic, social and cultural (which must include sports). At the same time history of sports could help in perceiving Zionist political and cultural aspects. It is well known that sports played a pivotal role in realizing the dream of the Jewish national home in Palestine.

It is partly a function of the long-standing tendency of historians of the Middle East to concentrate on political history at the expense of economic, social, cultural, and intellectual history, and on elites rather than other segments of society, wrote Rashid Khalidi.

It is difficult to understand many aspects of the modern Palestinian society without realizing the status of sport, which has become a distinguished culture within the Palestinian culture. The realization of many aspects of Palestine’s history requires examining Palestinian sports process for almost 100 years. Unfortunately, this was not perceived by many Palestinian historians and intellectuals who were and still looking at sport as an abstract entertaining activity with no vain, ignoring its national, social, educational, moral, and health aspects.

Throughout all historical stages, there were devotions and sacrifices. These sacrifices were not only represented through efforts and self-denial, but also through the struggle and fight for the cause of Palestine. In 1948, members of athletic clubs sacrificed their life for their homeland. The well-known athlete Zaki al-Darhali, who played for the national selected team as a left-wing, and his colleague Said Shunneir secretary of Palestine Sports Federation’s – Jaffa regional committee, were killed in the bombing of the social services center – Al-Saraya Building – in Jaffa by the Zionist military organizations.

After 1948, sports infrastructure was destroyed completely. 750,000 refugees scattered throughout the Diaspora, among them were tens of sports officials and athletes. In Lebanon (in 1950’s-1990’s) about 120 social-athletic clubs were established in refugee camps. Under the Egyptian administration, sports in Sector Gaza witnessed remarkable growth. In 1962, Palestine Football Association was established, and many federations of various sports became members in international federations. After 1967, in the West Bank and Sector Gaza, social-athletic clubs became a beacon of freedom and resistance against the Israeli occupation. Joining the International Olympic Committee and the International Football Federation in the 1990’s, Palestinian sports, despite of the obstacles set by the repugnant Israeli occupation, made a quantum leap in all arenas: local, regional and International.

Palestinians through sports do not only struggle for freedom and an independent state. They also seek to take part in advanced global civilization. Preserving history is one of the indicators of civilization, for civilization is the outcome of accumulated efforts by communities and individuals working responsibly and tirelessly for promoting progress and change.

In 1946, the Egyptian physical education teacher Hussein Husni, who served in Palestine for about fifteen years, wrote in Filastin: “Every Palestinian has to know, that every penny he pays to encourage sports renaissance, he buys nothing but glory for his homeland. Oh, how precious is glory.”

One of the goals of writing sports history is to remove a thick layer of dust from eras that had been hidden because of our negligence. Unfortunately, it is our inaction and negligence that drives our opponents to discredit our sporting reputation and write our sports and sports history according to their whims and goals.

Nothing could forbid us to write our own sport’s history. What we need is a thorough awareness about the place of sport in our society and its moral, educational, health, and national role in bringing up our generations and its contribution to social change and progress. We must intentionally inform the world the hardships Palestinian sports went through, and the obstacles Israel put in front of Palestinian sports. Also, we are at a time when we need to face and challenge the Israeli propaganda horns (such as the infamous Palestine Media Watch) against Palestinian sports.

– Issam Khalidi is an independent scholar living in Monterey,  California, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 (in Arabic), One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine (in Arabic and English), co-edited Soccer in the Middle East (Rutledge.), as well as articles and essays on the subject of sports included at www.hpalestinesports.net