What keeps Palestinians strong? History, olive trees and football

Dr. Ramzy Baroud

Despite the horrific war in Gaza and the unprecedented number of casualties, millions of Palestinians in the Middle East and around the world took a brief respite from their collective pain to watch their national football team make history in Doha.

The Palestinian team, also known as Fada’ii — the freedom fighter — had a decisive win against Hong Kong on 23 January. Even though the “Lions of Canaan” finished in third place, after Iran and the UAE, they still made it to the round of 16 of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in history.

Like the FIFA World Cup, also held in Doha in November 2022, Palestine’s presence was felt in all AFC games, with Palestinian flags waved by thousands of Arab fans.

Palestinian players came to Doha from Palestine itself, and also from across the Middle East; in fact, the world. They included the Palestinian Chilean player Camilo Saldaña, and the likes of Oday Dabbagh, a Jerusalemite who is currently playing professionally in Belgium.

For most Palestinians, sports are a symbol of unity as well as persistence.

Very few sports teams in the world have been through what Palestinian teams have experienced, whether in the form of direct harm to them and their families, or through their association with the Palestinian collective.

Yet, the fact that they can, against all odds, attend matches, participate in tournaments, equalise against teams such as the UAE, and even win, is a sign that the Palestinian nation will never be erased, neither 75 years after the Nakba, nor a thousand years from now.

A very long way away, another Palestine-linked team, Chile’s Deportivo Palestino, continues to express its historic connection to Palestine, despite the physical distance, different geopolitical spaces, culture and language. Before FIFA admitted Palestine as a member in 1996, Deportivo Palestino served as the symbolic Palestinian national team in exile. Its players donned football shirts adorned with Palestinian cultural symbols and other historical references to Palestine, a map, the colours of the flag and so on. Its players would often enter the Primera Division stadiums wearing the iconic Palestinian black and white keffiyeh.

The football club is over 100 years old, and the history of the Palestinian community in Chile is older than that. It was Palestinian Christians, not Muslims, who established the community, which refutes the claim that the so-called Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about religion, more specifically a “Jew-Muslim” issue.

While faith and spirituality are critical signifiers in the Palestinian national identity, Palestinians are driven by the kind of values which allow them to find common ground, whether they are in Gaza, Jerusalem, Santiago or Doha.

While Palestinians are no different to millions of people around the world in being football fans, sport for them is not just about sport.

Imagine a football stadium brimming with Palestinians from different religious, geographic, political, cultural and ideological backgrounds. They come, whether as fans or players, motivated by a single objective, celebrating their culture while emphasising their national continuity; an immovable reality despite the ongoing attempts to erase it.

Here, other symbols become relevant. The flag as a banner that unifies all Palestinians despite political factionalism; the keffiyeh, the ancient peasant symbol used to fight colonialism over the course of many decades; the map, presented without lines, walls, fences or zones, to remind them that they belong to a single historical narrative; and so on.

In fact, there is more to this symbolism. Arab and Muslim masses, all rallying around Palestinians in their quest for freedom and justice, also send a strong and unmistakable message: Palestinians are not alone; they are, in fact, part and parcel of a cultural, geographic, historical and spiritual continuity that spans many generations, national flags and even borders.

While millions of people are currently feeling the pain of Gaza, expressing unprecedented solidarity with the suffering civilian population, the Arab masses feel that pain at a whole different level. It feels as if the Arab and Muslim peoples have internalised the pain of Gaza as if it were their own. In many ways, it is.

Yet, despite the indescribable pain and suffering of millions of innocent civilians, there is always that historic certainty that Palestine will, as it has always done, prevail over its torment and tormentors in the end. At this juncture, no other symbolism can serve the role of the powerful metaphor as that of the olive tree. It is as old as history, as rooted as hope and, despite everything, continues to endure in the land of Palestine; it will go on producing some of the world’s best olive oil.

Palestinian farmers do not simply see their olive orchards as a source of income, but as a source of strength and love. The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his seminal poem The Second Olive Tree: “If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, Their Oil would become Tears”.

One day, Palestine will become a reality, free of pain, suffering and tears. But even then, it will continue to be a generator of meaning that will keep future generations of Palestinians as conscious of their past as they are eager for the future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.