UK & World News

  • 8 October 2012, 7:18

Palestinians Defy Shalit 'El Classico' Ban

Palestinians have put football before politics by defying a call from Hamas to boycott the 'El Classico' showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Hamas, the governing party in the Gaza strip, demanded the game be banned from television after it emerged Barcelona had invited former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to watch the match at the Nou Camp.

Mr Shalit spent more than five years captive in Gaza after being kidnapped by Palestinian fighters in 2006. He was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas.

But across Gaza and the West Bank cafes and coffee houses were filled with people determined to watch the two Spanish giants go head-to-head in their first La Liga meeting of the season.

In the build up to the game Mr Shalit's attendance was condemned by several pro-Palestinian groups, with more than 1,000 signing a petition protesting against the club's decision.

Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak, who was recently released from Israeli detention after going on hunger strike, was also invited to the game, but he turned down the offer.

Mr Sarsak said: "I refuse to sit in the same place with a killer who came on a military tank. I respect Barcelona's invitation, but I have to avoid angering the Palestinian people and their supporters as well as all those who supported me during my hunger strike."

A video protest viewed by tens of thousands of people on YouTube showed Palestinian children in Barcelona strips being gunned down by a depiction of Gilad Shalit in an israeli tank.

Barcelona is by far the most widely supported team in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Ramallah supporters ignored the boycott to watch the Catalan side take on their rivals in public spaces around the city.

The busy La Vista restaurant had advertised on Facebook that it was showing the game, and was already filled with customers and smoke from shisha water pipes as the game got underway.

Manager Murad Abulalhawa said calls for a boycott of the game were misplaced, adding: "Look, nobody is even talking about it. Sport brings us together, politics shouldn't come into it."

Despite the game being watched widely there were some who agreed with the calls for a boycott and staged minor demonstrations.

In Gaza a group of former prisoners played their own five-a-side version of the match rather than watch the real thing.

Yasser Saleh, who spent 17 years in Israeli jails said: "Soccer is a sport that carries the message of freedom and love but we are against it when a soldier is invited, because it equates between the victim and the aggressor."

In a small protest in front of the Spanish consulate in East Jerusalem, a group of some 30 demonstrators held up placards with the club's insignia daubed in red paint, and at least one trampled on a Barcelona shirt, Reuters reported.

Ahead of the game a source from Barcelona FC told the AFP news agency: "We received a request from an Israeli minister to invite Shalit, and we accepted.

"It should be made clear that Barca takes no position through this invitation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We recall that in 2011 the club's vice president, Carles Villarubi, received Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and showed him the club facilities."

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