Sporting chance for Palestinian Olympians

Palestinian judoka Maher Abul Rmelleh at a martial arts studio in east Jerusalem Maher Abu Rmelleh says competing at the Olympics is "a dream come true"

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After struggling to pursue sport for years because of the impact of the conflict with Israel, Palestinians now have a rare chance to celebrate success.

Maher Abu Rmelleh, a judoka, is the first ever Palestinian sportsman to qualify on points to participate in the Olympic Games.

Mr Abu Rmelleh, who found out only weeks ago that he will be travelling to London this summer, will join four other Palestinian "solidarity" athletes who have been invited by the International Olympic Committee to compete despite not having the necessary qualifying points.

In the absence of sports funding or any official sporting infrastructure, Mr Abu Rmelleh works full-time selling scarves in his shop in Jerusalem's Old City.

He trains early in the morning and after work.

"It's a dream come true" he says, modestly.

"I'm so happy to be representing Palestine. And it's great that I'm from Jerusalem, the capital," referring to the contested city, whose eastern half is sought by the Palestinians as the capital of a future state.

'Transcending politics'

Sport is a matter of national pride the world over, but for Palestinians it carries extra symbolism.

Maher Abu Rmelleh earned his qualifying points in Japan last year by defeating the judo champion of Hong Kong.

The Palestinian National Footbal team Some coaches say Palestinian sport needs more expertise and management

His achievements have defied the odds, but his is not a totally isolated success story.

Palestinian football has been doing well for some time, and the game attracts players of both sexes.

First there was a women's five-a-side national indoor football tournament. Then in 2009 a full national women's football team was established that now competes internationally.

For the past two years one man has been behind the promotion of sports in the Palestinian territories - Jibril Rajoub, former head of security for the Palestinian Authority, now President of the Palestinian Football Federation and of the Palestinian Olympic Committee.

His latest initiative is an annual football tournament to commemorate the Nakba, or 'catastrophe', the Palestinian name for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes or were displaced.

This year in May, Asian and African national teams competed and Mr Rajoub hopes that European and other countries will participate next year.

"Sport transcends politics," Mr Rajoub says, but he is also aware of its political message, seeing it as "a peaceful means of exposing Palestinian suffering".

His goal, he says, is to use "the ethics and values of sport to convince the international community that the occupation should come to an end."

Ibrahim Habash, former captain of the Palestinian basketball team (1998-2011), now coaches women's under-18 basketball at Seriyyeh First Ramallah Club.

Mr Habash appreciates Jibril Rajoub's success in attracting international teams to compete in the Palestinian territories and is delighted with the encouragement given to women's sports.

He is concerned, however, that the organisation of sport for Palestinians needs an overarching, long-term administrative structure.

We need "experts," he says, "not just coaches and trainers but also managers."

Ghadir Lada of the Palestinian National Women's team has a kick-about Palestinian women compete internationally in basketball and football
Obstacles

For Ibrahim Habash and Maher Abu Rmelleh, as for members of the women's football team at Serriyeh, obstacles to Palestinian sporting success are far greater than either the opportunities or the support structure.

The biggest obstacle of all is the Israeli occupation. With travel for Palestinians extremely difficult owing to measures Israel says are necessary for security, athletes have little or no chance to train together before competitions.

Mr Abu Rmelleh rarely gets the opportunity to meet up with judokas from Gaza or areas of the West Bank, such as Bethlehem and Hebron.

This is particularly hard on team sports such as football and basketball. Such an example is the case of Mahmoud Sarsak, a footballer from Gaza, detained by Israel as he set off to compete in a match in the West Bank in 2009.

Sarsak has been held without charge or trial since then, under Israel's Unlawful Combatants Law, which he protested against with a three-month hunger strike.

Israel says Sarsak belongs to the Islamic Jihad militant group and is a threat to national security, an allegation Sarsak denies.

In the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even the beautiful game can turn ugly.

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