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The message was peace, but the result may be punishment. Palestinian soccer players who took part in a highly publicized 'peace match' along with Israeli soccer stars last week may face punishment by their football association for playing alongside Israelis at a time of occupation, senior officials from the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) told The Jerusalem Post.
Jamal Zaqout, a senior PFA official from Gaza - not to be confused with the politician by the same name who was involved in peace talks with Israel, had said anyone who joined the match would definitely be punished.
"The PFA will form a committee to investigate the players who participated in the match," Zaqout told the Post by phone from Gaza. "It's certain that everyone involved will be punished. They violated PFA regulations that prohibit any player from going abroad to play foreigners without getting the PFA's permission first."
Last week Palestinian players joined Israeli ones in Barcelona to form a "Peace Team." They played in Barcelona's fabled Nou Camp Stadium against the giants of Spanish soccer, including European Footballer of the Year, Ronaldinho. Actor Sean Connery kicked off the match as over 30,000 spectators looked on with dignitaries and celebrities. The peace team lost 2:1.
Both the Peres Center for Peace and the Abu Sukar Center for Peace and Dialogue, who jointly organized the event, expressed irritation with Zaqout's statements.
Khader Abed, the manager of the sports division at the Abu Sukar Center for Peace and Dialogue, was annoyed by the statements but not worried. "This is all false," said Abed who made arrangements for the Palestinians to attend the game. "When [the players] left to Barcelona it was under the decisions of the President [Mahmoud Abbas] and of the head of Security, Jibril Rajoub," said Abed.
But the other - and possibly more serious - problem Zaqout had was with whom the Palestinians played.
"We are against the normalization of ties [with Israel] and therefore we oppose playing any game with any Israeli team until there will be peace," said Zaqout, who insisted he is a 'man of sports, not of politics.'
Abed took a cynical stance to Zaqout's statements. "He said this because he wasn't invited to go himself," Abed told the Post. "So now he wants to do a little bit of problems. We don't need his type of people. We want the peaceful type of people like our President, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]."
Zaqout said that soccer games don't help peace. "What helps peace is the end of the occupation and the release of more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners," he said. "We have a member of the association who is now in an Israeli prison, Hatem Ikfeisheh. We also have an international referee, Kamal Salem from Tulkarm, who was killed by Israeli soldiers two years ago. I also have two players from the National team that the Israelis killed during the intifadah. That's why we won't play against Israelis."
Michal Eldar, a spokeswoman from the Peres Center for peace spokesman called the reaction of the PFA "irresponsible and petty."
Abed told the Post that Zaqout's threats were empty. "The Palestinian Football Association is divided into two parts," said Abed. "All the players [who participated in the Peace Match] were from the West Bank. Jamal Zakout is from Gaza so he can't do anything." He added that all the players were originally in the Palestinian security forces. "Meaning that the Federation cannot do anything to them," said Abed.
But Bader Mikki, Secretary-General of the PFA, said that since the PFA is a non-governmental body the decision to punish or not to punish the players was in the hands of the association."
It's possible there will be punishments," said Mikki, who lives in Jerusalem. "We will decide next week at an FA meeting." The meeting will take place over video conference.