So when the Green Falcons ran out on the field as visitors at Faisal al-Husseini stadium, it ended Saudi Arabia’s decades-long boycott of playing in the West Bank in protest of Israel’s control over Palestinian borders. Some Palestinian activists condemned the Saudis’ appearance for “normalizing” the status quo as part of a subtle recent thawing of relations between the Arab power and Israel.
But the governing Palestinian Authority hailed the game as a boost for sovereignty over local turf, if only the turf of a soccer pitch.
“We welcome the Saudi team here to play for the first time on our own soil,” said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after the players had stepped off their bus from the Jordanian border for a welcome that would include a state dinner and a visit to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
In 2015, during the last lead-up to
the World Cup, the United Arab Emirates became the first team willing to play in the modern, 12,500-seat stadium next to the concrete security wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian territory. But the Saudis, considered then as now the dominant soccer power in the region, refused an invitation to follow suit.
“Saudi Arabia is in a different league, just a massive brand in the Arab world,” said Uri Levy, a Jerusalem-based soccer journalist who was the first to report on the Saudis’ change of heart for this round. “This decision will have huge consequences.”
Interest in the game was sky-high among West Bank fans. Thousands of free tickets were distributed in hours by the local phone company, Jawwal.
“People are thrilled the Saudis are here,” said Hamad Tomaleh, who was wearing a Palestinian national jersey and handing out tickets in the Ramallah mall. Soccer “is like religion here.”
In the end, the Palestinians, in front of a crowd that overflowed onto surrounding rooftops, would hold the Saudis to a 0-0 tie.
But it is the political gamesmanship that has generated controversy. The Israeli government hasn’t commented on the Saudi-Palestinian match, but Israel has historically welcomed such ordinary interactions with its Arab neighbors.
Further, the country is widely seen as waging an unacknowledged effort to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, mostly over their shared concerns about Iran. The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this article.
A number of Palestinian activists and militant groups denounced both the Palestinian Authority for inviting the Saudis and the Saudis for accepting. Some, pointing out that Israel won’t even allow Palestinian teams from the Gaza Strip to travel to the West Bank stadium, launched an online campaign against the Saudi appearance under the banner: “Normalization is treason.”
Khalil Shaheen, a political analyst at the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies-Masarat in Ramallah, said Abbas and the Palestinian leadership were too eager to host an important game.
“He is achieving the Israeli goal without knowing it,” Shaheen said. “This is what gives Israel an excuse to say things are normal here.”
Saudi and Palestinian officials rejected the criticism.
“Just by visiting the prisoners at the jail doesn’t mean that you are supporting the jailers,” Jibril Rajoub, the fiery head of the Palestinian Football Association, said in an interview after a dinner with the Saudi delegation in the West Bank town of Rawabi. “It’s good for the Palestinian people, and it’s good for the Palestinian cause.”
The Palestinians launched a major effort to lure the Saudi team. Rajoub, a high-ranking member of Abbas’s Fatah party who refers to himself as “an ex-freedom fighter who spent 17 years in Israeli jails,” said he was on the phone with an invitation to his counterpart in Riyadh as soon as the World Cup group draw was announced. Abbas followed up with a personal appeal, according to the Saudis.
“The president of the Palestinian government sent a letter to our king,” said Yasser al-Mishal, president of the Saudi Football Federation, who was at the dinner with Rajoub.
After multiple meetings with both Jordanian and Palestinian officials, the Saudis decided to reverse their long-standing position.
“It is a simple right for every national team in the world to host their own games in their own stadium,” Mishal said. “We thought that coming would also give a message to everyone that Palestine has its own territory and its own rights, and we support that.”
He declined to address the political element, other than to say he was unaware of any approval needed from higher-ups in Saudi government.
“From my end, it’s a purely sports event,” he said.