Following the six-day war in 1967 when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, Haj Hashem Atta Shawa, the founder of the Bank of Palestine, was asked to change its name. “Call it anything but the Bank of Palestine or we will close it down,” he was told.
When he refused, the occupiers covered the word Palestine in black paint in every bank office and branch, and halted all bank operations.
Israel’s anxiety about the word “Palestine” has not ceased since its inception. Names can remind us of the historical record and possession and must be changed to erase any such association. People were also given new labels – Polish Jews became ‘Israelis’ and Palestinians became ‘Arabs’. The word Palestine had to be wiped out.
“You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because those geography books no longer exist,” Moshe Dayan once said. “Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehoshua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
But for all this renaming, the name “Palestine” endures and continues to be gravely problematic for Israel. It became a great deal more than a mere name for the geographic area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River – it came to embody an entire alternative narrative.
Australians could be forgiven for being bewildered about Palestine these days. Their country has voted down recognising Palestine at the UN Security Council despite years of professed bipartisan support from politicians for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A decision that becomes even more baffling after Australia hosted the Palestine national team in the Asian Cup.
Palestinians kicked the round ball early in the last century and the game soon gained popularity in schools and clubs, with both Jewish and Palestinian teams starting to emerge. But when the Mandatory Palestine football team was formed in the 1930s for the qualification matches of the World Cup, it was exclusively made up of Jewish players. A few short years later, not only the football team, but the country itself, became Israel.
Pioneering Palestinians with a passion for football migrated to the furthest parts of the globe. In 1920, Palestinian immigrants to Chile founded Deportivo Palestino, a premier division football club which to this day reflects its origins in Chile’s Palestinian community, and plays in the colours of the Palestinian flag. Chilean-born striker Matias Jadue may be prevented from representing Palestine due to delayed paperwork, however what he and other Diaspora players represent in choosing this stateless national team is driven by what’s in their hearts, not on a piece of paper.
Alas, sport in Palestine is like every other aspect of life for Palestinians; ultimately controlled by Israel. Israeli checkpoint officers have a say in the national team squad by barring players from movement and travel, or imprisoning them without charge. Sameh Ma’raba is the latest casualty, denied travel in spite of being in the line-up of the national team, having only been released from administrative detention a month earlier.
Mahmoud Sarsak, the football star turned resistance hero, went on a 3-month hunger strike after years of imprisonment by Israel without trial or charges. Mahmoud will never be the same again and neither will Jawhar Nasser and Adam Halabiya, shot in the legs by Israeli soldiers as they approached a checkpoint on their way back from training 12 months ago.
These daily experiences of soccer players echo the daily suffering of Palestinians living under the occupation. The four Bakr cousins – the oldest of them just 11 – were shelled and killed as they played football on a Gaza beach a few months ago, in plain view of the world’s media.
Decades of displacement, occupation and detention succeeded in separating Palestinians with security borders and high walls, but failed to break their collective identity. The Palestinian squad that played in Australia for the Asia Cup is comprised of West Bankers, Gazans, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Diaspora Palestinians.
It is no wonder that Israel abhors these national heroes and the name they bear, and also no wonder that the biggest fan and sponsor of the team happens to be a private institution that goes by the name of Bank of Palestine.
After 10 years of litigation all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, Haj Shawa won that name back in the late 70s, and the Bank of Palestine lived on and grew to become the second largest employer in Palestine today.
His grandson and current chairman, Hashim Shawa was in the stands cheering on the team, convinced that no amount of black paint can ever cover the name of his forbears’ homeland and institution.
Over the last few days, Palestine lost all three games against Japan, Jordan and Iraq. For the rest of us however, our team has won. It may very well be a short-lived win, but we have scored two goals that are wonderful to experience: Our unity and the spirit of a free nation!
* Amin Abbas is a Diaspora Palestinian, living in Australia.
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