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Freedom through football

Against a backdrop of escalating violence in Palestine and Israel, in October a football team organised by Bristol’s Easton Cowboys embarked on a week long tour of the West Bank.

Bristol and Beyond

‘Freedom through football / Viva Palestina!

Against a backdrop of escalating violence in Palestine and Israel, in October a football team organised by Bristol’s Easton Cowboys embarked on a week long tour of the West Bank

Words: Tom Burnett
Photography: Jed Baron

From the first time I met members of the Easton Cowboys one message was clear: if someone has an idea they’ll do their best to carry it out. This sports and social club have been achieving outlandish aims since they formed in the early 90s, and now thoughts turned to a football tour of Palestine…

Discussions began almost a year before, but by the summer of 2015 a football squad – including a selection of Easton Cowboys, Republica Internationale from Leeds and assorted hangers on, myself included – was about to fulfil that dream.

We’d watched nervously as the situation between Palestinians and Israelis deteriorated after Israeli incursions into the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem in late September, but everyone was still determined to travel. One thing we’d realised in our frequent discussions was that the most important thing we could do was to show Palestinians that the outside world hadn’t forgotten about them.

Our Palestinian contact, Hamed Qawasmeh, who directs the Hebron International Resources Network (HIRN), had made extensive plans for our visit, to include olive picking, planting thyme, visiting various Palestinian and Bedouin villages and, of course, plenty of football. Our base was to be HIRN’s headquarters in Hebron, in the southern section of the West Bank in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Hebron’s population of 170,000 is split between two areas: H1 and H2. Directly under control of the Palestinian authorities, H1 is home to around 140,000 Palestinians, while H2, which includes the Old City, is under Israeli control. The reason for this is that as well as being home to about 30,000 Palestinians, there are also between 500 and 850 Israeli settlers living there, based in four downtown settlements.

Since the settlers began moving to the Palestinian city in the early 80s, the Old City, once the West Bank’s main commercial hub, has gradually become a ghost town. Almost 2,000 Palestinian-run shops have closed over the past 15 years, with businesses hampered at every turn by restrictions, curfews and forced closures.

The businesses that remain in the Old City, a few dozen traders eking out an existence from the city’s shrinking tourist trade, are also hampered from above by the settlers, who live above the neighbourhood and regularly thrown rocks, rubbish and bags of faeces down on the souk below. Ever resourceful, the traders have set up nets to intercept these gifts from above.

With at least one person killed each day during our stay, the atmosphere in Hebron was unlike anything I’d experienced before. While we could have gone to the Old City, the part of Hebron where the majority of killings were taking place, Hamed advised against this. Instead, we spent our time visiting Palestinian villages such as Umm al-Khair, a short bus ride south west of Hebron.

Bedouin refugees have lived on this site since they were forcibly moved from the Negev Desert by the fledgling Israeli authorities in the late 1940s. Then, in the 1980s, in a pattern familiar across the West Bank, Israeli settlers began moving to the area adjacent to the village. With government funding, this settlement, now known as Carmel, has grown steadily and now comprises approximately 70 permanent settler families with access to running water, consistent electricity and 21st century technology.

children in Umm Al-Khair playing against villagers in Umm Al-Khair. The ball went over the fence into the settlement, small children came and threw it back, but were soon collected by their older siblings this template was made by the Easton Cowgirls when they visited the West Bank last year - we sprayed this in Umm Al-Khair playground in Umm Al-Khair planting thyme with an IDF soldier looking on. The settlement of Carmel is situated behind. settlement gates separating the Carmel settlement from Umm Al-Khair. Power lines giving the settlement all their electricity needs go over the village me, right, and another Cowboy, planting thyme in Umm Al-Khair. The villagers are looking to this cash crop as shepherding is becoming increasingly difficult with their land being taken over by the neighbouring settlement planting thyme in Umm Al-Khair - settlement behind. Note the number of trees etc, the settlements are oasis compared to the barren land around them a typical Hebron scene - Palestinian cities have a terrible problem with rubbish. This new initiative, putting skips every km or so, which are emptied fairly regularly, seems to be working. the Cowboys' first game - playing Shabab Al-Khalil SC under 15s at the Shabab Al-Khalil SC stadium in Hebron Photo: @ILO/A.Khemka the Cowboys' first game - playing Shabab Al-Khalil SC under 15s at the Shabab Al-Khalil SC stadium in Hebron

Living cheek by jowl with this settlement, illegally situated on Palestinian land, remains Umm al-Khair, now a shabby collection of tents and temporary breezeblock structures. Water is delivered by truck from the north of the West Bank, as the majority of water in the area now goes directly to the settlements. This situation often means Palestinians pay considerably more for this valuable resource than those living in the settlements. Approximately once a year, demolition orders will be served on various ‘buildings’, and soon after bulldozers and the army will come and knock people’s homes down.

After helping to plant thyme, which the villagers hope will become a cash crop, we played an impromptu game of football on the village’s rough pitch, squeezed in between the thyme field and settler fence. Children with no shoes, men wearing sandals, it was our first taste of the week to come. We lost two balls over the settlement fence – eventually a group of young settler children came and threw the balls back before they were rounded up by a teenager, clearly sent out to put an end to this positive contact.

Over the coming week we played on rocky pitches and 3G ‘grass’, ate falafel and ate falafel, laughed with friends old and new, and cried in sheer frustration for a people being gradually worn down into submission. We came away from the trip with a thousand thoughts, and trying to put them into a straightforward narrative seemed almost impossible at times. But the tour also ingrained one single thought in all our minds… Viva, viva Palestina!

The Hebron International Resource Network (HIRN)

Founded in 2010, HIRN works with Palestinian communities that, due to their fragile or temporary status, are underserved by support from aid agencies and NGOs.

The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls, and Republican Internationale

These two sports and social clubs, based in Bristol and Leeds respectively, offer a different kind of club to the norm. Fielding teams comprised of players you might not usually find on a football, cricket or netball pitch, they’re inclusive, active and political.

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