(MENAFN - The Peninsula) The fate of a high-profile Palestinian football match was in doubt yesterday with Gaza officials saying Israel was barring players from travelling to the West Bank, a charge denied by the Jewish state.
Following Thursday's goalless draw between Ahli Al Khalil from the West Bank city of Hebron and Gaza's Ittihad Al Shejaiya - their first in 15 years - a second leg was planned tomorrow in Hebron.
West Bank and Gaza Strip teams play in separate leagues, in which Al Ahli and Shejaiya emerged as champions. The winner is eligible to represent Palestine in international competitions.
But Palestinian Football Association's Gaza representative yesterday said Israel had barred three members of Shejaiya team from crossing its territory to reach the West Bank.
"Shejaiya club told us they would not play the return leg because Israel refused permits to players Omar Al Arir, Mayssara Bawab and Hashem Al Abed Rabbo," Ismail Matar said.
The club said the number of players barred was seven and that nobody would play unless all were granted permits.
But COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry's unit that coordinates with Gaza, said it had approved all applications.
The Strip, with which Israel fought a devastating 50-day war last summer, and the West Bank are 60km apart but separated by politics and Israeli territory.
Islamist movement Hamas rules Gaza, which is under a strict Israeli blockade, while the rival Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas is based in the West Bank.
Matar said the Palestinians had informed football's world governing body FIFA of the problem to put pressure on Israel.
Restrictions on the movement of players is one of the reasons the Palestinians have pushed FIFA, of which Palestine has been a member since 1998, to sanction Israel.
On Thursday, thousands of fans converged on a stadium for a match seen as a symbolic victory over bitter political divisions and the Israeli blockade.
The encounter between Al Ahli and Shejaiya was technically to determine who will go on to represent Palestine in international competitions. Players and fans, however, saw it as much more than a sporting event.
Attempts at reconciliation between the two Palestinian political factions have proved futile - but that was not the case for Thursday's football match.
The match which ended in a 0-0 draw was a relief for Gazans from the poverty and destruction surrounding them, especially after last year's war with Israel.
But not everyone could enter at five shekels per ticket ($1.30) to watch the match, played in blisteringly hot temperatures.
Shejaiya hails from an area flattened in the war that destroyed 18,000 homes and left more than 100,000 people homeless.
Yarmouk stadium, where the game was played, was partly destroyed by Israeli strikes.
"Shejaiya, Shejaiya, not afraid of death," home fans chanted amid a din of drums and smoke. Cries of "go Al Ahli" also rose from the stadium.
For Al Ahli Goalkeeper Azmi Shweiki, "football has succeeded where the politicians have failed. It brings people together."
He said he was "moved by people's smiles despite the living conditions."
Ahmed Mahajni, who also plays for Al Ahli, was visiting Gaza for the first time, with the coastal enclave largely cut off from the world by the Israeli blockade and a closed border with Egypt.
Mahajni added that it was "already a victory."
To reach Gaza, the West Bank team had to cross Israeli territory, and the Jewish state had to grant approval for its players to enter the Strip.
Once there, Captain Fadi Dweik, said: "We are happy to be here and very sad to see the destruction from last year's war, the third in six years with Israel.
"We saw in the media the damage from the war, but to see all of that for yourself, it's another feeling - much stronger." He called the match "a message of hope sent to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip." Shejaiya President Salah Harazallah said: "The match aimed to break the blockade on Gazan sport and it was achieved when Al Ahli entered Gaza."