7 May 2009
The Palestinian national football team played its first European match yesterday, in a match that was watched avidly by Palestinians and football fans across the Middle East. The match took place in Brussels and was a friendly against the Belgium Molenbeek team. The match was one of UNRWA’s 60th anniversary events and was organised with the help of the EU as part of the EU-UNRWA Partnership for Peace and Humanity.
Assembling the Palestine team in Brussels for the match was in itself a considerable challenge. The Palestinian side had to make do with a squad of 16 rather than the standard 22, due to travel restrictions – and it took seven of the Gaza based squad members three days to get to Belgium. But at least a full team was present and able to play. In 2007 the Palestinians missed the World Cup qualifying game in Singapore due to travel restrictions and were eliminated from the first round. Difficulties in getting the players together have been partially responsible for Palestine’s slip down the FIFA rankings – it achieved its highest ranking in 2006 at 115 but has since gone down to 171.
But none of this mattered on Wednesday night as Palestinians gathered to watch the game in their homes and also at screenings organized in refugee camps in the West Bank, Syria and Jordan. In the West Bank the screening was held in the Ibda’a centre in Bethlehem’s Dheishah Camp where young people from the camp gathered to watch the match alongside EU and UN officials. The atmosphere was joyful and noisy, with the match being preceded by Dabke performances and traditional music.
The match was a close one, with the Palestinian team eventually losing 4-3, missing a golden opportunity to score in the last minute of the match. But in some ways the score didn’t matter, the very fact the match took place at all and could be watched live across the Palestinian Diaspora was enough in itself. As Sami Mshasha, UNRWA’s Arabic Spokesman stated, ‘while UNRWA’s commemoration of its 60th anniversary is no cause for joy, events such as this one underscore the Palestinian’s capacity for hope and joy for life’.
The achievements of the past 60 years could not have been accomplished without the aid and efforts of all stakeholders, and without cooperation between host countries, donors and refugees themselves. Since 1971 the European Union has regularly supported UNRWA and is now its largest multilateral donor. Since 2000, the European Commission has contributed over €1 billion to UNRWA, an average of €110 million per year. Out of this, nearly one quarter of the support has been provided by the EC’s humanitarian department (ECHO) for UNRWA’s emergency appeals for humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. In combination with contributions from EU member states, EC contributions cover more than half UNRWA’s budget.