AL-RAM, Palestinian Territories — The Palestinian Olympic Committee has declared "open war" against Israel in a dispute over movement restrictions that could poison international football.
The uproar threatens to reverse years of relatively good relations that had seen Palestinian football rise to prominence with the construction of a new stadium and a high-profile visit by FIFA head Sepp Blatter in 2008.
The dispute erupted earlier this week when six players on the national football team from Gaza who have been living and playing in the West Bank were turned back at the Jordanian border for "security reasons" on their way to a friendly in Mauritania.
An Israeli security official said the players failed to renew the special permits which allow them to play in the West Bank and were granted to them as a "humanitarian gesture" aimed at keeping politics out of sports.
But the Palestinians insist they shouldn't need permission to travel throughout the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the West Bank, lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and expected to be part of a future Palestinian state.
"The Olympic committee will engage in an open war with the occupation to guarantee the freedom of movement of Palestinian players, teams and club members in order to allow us to establish sporting institutions on our own land," chairman Jibril Rajub told reporters on Wednesday.
The Olympic committee is the most senior sporting body in the Palestinian territories.
The former security chief in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority has been widely praised for revitalising Palestinian football and had been mostly successful in securing Israeli permits for his players.
But on Wednesday he joined dozens of protesters at a tent outside Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in the West Bank town of Al-Ram near Jerusalem, to protest the Israeli restrictions.
Rajub, who is also head of the Palestinian Football Federation, vowed to fight back, saying his committee would send letters of protest and "demand the removal of Israel from international sporting organisations."
Israel had allowed the six players to travel with the team on previous occasions but last week it refused.
"The players were staying in the West Bank illegally because the Palestinian football association did not renew their permits," the Israeli security official said on condition of anonymity.
"When they requested to leave to Jordan they were denied for security reasons," he said, meaning their departure was blocked by Israel's Shin Bet internal security service in a move most likely related to the permits.
The team sent six replacements to Mauritania, including three Palestinians living in Jordan, and played to a 0-0 draw.
Midfielder Suleiman al-Obeid, one of the six players stopped at the border, has been living in the West Bank for the last year and a half.
He has not returned to Gaza to visit his wife and two children during that period for fear he would be prevented from rejoining his team in the West Bank. He has yet to see his daughter, who was born nine months ago.
"When I heard that we would be forbidden from travelling I was very upset, because any athlete dreams of wearing his national jersey in international forums," he told AFP.
"We want to be able to travel freely with our families, just like athletes anywhere else in the world."
The Israeli permits only allow the six to play for the national team, so when they travel through the West Bank and play with local clubs they risk being arrested and sent back to Gaza, though Israel rarely enforces the rule.
Officials on both sides had hoped to insulate football from the wider Middle East conflict, and in recent years they had largely succeeded.
In 2008, the national team played Jordan in its first-ever home match in the 6,000-seat stadium, an event attended by FIFA chief Blatter and dozens of foreign diplomats, and last summer it played friendlies in Iraq and China.
The team has also been a rare point of unity for the fiercely-divided Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas since the latter seized power in Gaza in June 2007, splitting the Palestinians into hostile rival camps.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, said he had filed a complaint with Israel's public security ministry regarding the permits.
"Israel is trying to set Palestinian sports back after they have taken a great leap forward," he said.
"The first principle of international sports is that they should be based on fair play, so where is the fairness in keeping Palestinian players from freely travelling with their team?"
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