Why stand up for the Gaza boys?

The Al-Helal football children from Gaza with President Michael D. Higgins after a Galway United game in 2016. Photo: Sean’s Sports Photos.

When a group of talented young footballers from Gaza visited Galway five years ago, they were absolutely thrilled to be nominated as ‘guests of honour’ at a big game between Galway United and Dundalk at Eamon Deacy Park.

United were flying high in the Premier Division at the time and produced their best performance of the season to beat the reigning champions 1-0 before a huge and vocal crowd. Home town hero Vinny Faherty scored the winning goal.

It was a magical night at Terryland.

The 14 boys and their two coaches who were allowed to travel to Ireland on a ten day trip, after a lot of bureaucratic troubles and delays, had tears in their eyes when virtually the entire main stand rose together midway through the second half to chant “Stand up for the Gaza boys!”

The little boys from Palestine played an exhibition game on the pitch at half-time.

After the game, United officials invited the members of the Al-Helal Football Academy to a room under the stand to meet President Michael D. Higgins.

“Is he the President of Galway United?” Mohamed, the only boy who could speak English, asked me.

“No, he’s the President of Ireland!”

Huge chatter ensued in Arabic among the delighted boys. What kind of city was this that would give them pride of place at the biggest game of the season, let them play in front of a big crowd, and introduce them to the president of the land?

Full of humility and joy, the boys left a lasting impression on everyone who met them that night, and on the families of Kinvara where they played a series of friendly games against local youngsters the day before. The Gaza boys won all the games on their ten day Irish tour and the Galway Community Circus put on a free show for them in Kinvara.

They returned to Ireland the following year, but in 2018 and 2019 bureaucratic hurdles got in the way and they were denied exit visas for a trip which is organised and sponsored by Gaza Action Ireland each year. The news that they could not travel to Ireland resulted in crushing disappointment for the children.

That’s the reality of life in Gaza for the two million people who live in a tiny strip of land which is smaller than Co Louth. The people of Gaza understood what “lockdown” meant long before the coronavirus brought the concept to Ireland. For most, travelling anywhere outside the tiny strip is an impossible dream. 

A young Palestinian student flies a flag in Galway last weekend. Photo by Ciaran Tierney

The two border crossings, linking them to Egypt and Israel, are closed to most Gazans most of the time. If fishermen travel more than a few miles from shore, they are shot at by the Israeli military. They have been living under a siege since 2007.

Half of the people who live in the strip are children and an estimated 75% (1.4 million) of them are refugees or the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel. For 11 days until Thursday night, bombs were dropped on this tiny piece of land, displacing more than 70,000 people from their homes.

There are many people in Galway and Kinvara who have built up links with the Al-Helal academy, who bring the best players from all over the strip together. Aged between 10 and 14, those Gaza boys were cowering under their beds again this week in the third major aerial bombardment of their lifetimes.

Yesterday, Gaza health officials revealed that 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, had been killed and more than 1,900 wounded in the aerial bombardments which destroyed buildings all across the strip.

Their own football ground in northern Gaza was bombed by Israel in both 2012 and 2014. Football gives them a little escape from the harshness of life in one of the most troubled places on earth.

Most of the boys who came to Galway in 2016 and 2017 were traumatised by the 2014 Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip. More than 2,250 Palestinians, including 551 children, lost their lives. So trauma is nothing new to these children.

“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza,” UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres said on Thursday. 

It was because of the Al-Helal children, and other innocent children like them all across Palestine, that hundreds of people turned up for a “social distancing” vigil in solidarity with the people in Palestine in Galway last weekend.

It was arranged at short notice by people who did not want to break the guidelines on outdoor gatherings. 

People wanted to share their grief and anger at the ongoing injustice of how Palestinians have been living under a brutal occupation for so long and how little hope they have in places like Gaza.

Palestinians take inspiration from the Irish people’s long struggle for freedom and the Palestinian students who live in Galway were particularly keen to meet up in safety and show their support to the people back home.

People in the Galway arts and dance communities have built up wonderful friendships with performers in Palestine, including dancer Ata Khattab who performed a memorable show here in 2017 and Gaza artist Sohail Salem, who worked on the ‘Hope it Rains’ project for Galway 2020. Khattab was arrested in a dawn raid on his home in early February. 

It might seem pointless to wave a flag in Galway in solidarity with people facing a terrible injustice so far away, but videos and images from South Park and the Spanish Arch were shared all across the world last Saturday.

By Sunday morning, messages of thanks were being received by the Galway organisers from places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza City.

Among them was a message from Ayed Awni Abu-Ramadan, chairman of the Al-Helal club, who spent recent nights sheltering from the bombings with his wife and young daughter.

“God bless Ireland and its people,” he said. “Thank you so much for your continued support. To get calls from Ireland or to see messages on social media relieves a lot, because it shows us that the people of Ireland are standing with us, unlike most other people who are not really caring about the situation. From here, I send you all of our love and friendship.”

Later in the week, Ayed spoke live from Gaza City on ‘Morning Ireland’ on RTE Radio One after another night of bombardment.

“It’s very dangerous to leave the house,” he said on Tuesday. “We could hear all night the bombing of buildings. We have seen on TV the killings of innocent people in their homes. More than a hundred buildings were bombed. More than 5,000 housing units were bombed.

“I can’t trust going out of my home, especially leaving my family behind. I am trying to be with my family all the time, so that whatever happens happens to all of us. Of course we are scared, we are actually traumatised. It’s beyond description, with bombing and shelling all night. It’s really scary.”

A ceasefire was declared late on Thursday night, but the injustice goes on for the people of Palestine who cannot enjoy things we take for granted in Ireland – such as travelling to visit family members in other parts of the country or even to visit the sea. Many people in the West Bank find it impossible to get permits to travel the relatively short distance to the Mediterranean.

The bombing may have stopped, but the injustice goes on for some of the nicest and most appreciative people many of us have met in our lives.

Which is why people in Galway will continue to advocate for justice for the people of Palestine, whether by gathering outdoors to fly a flag or lobbying Irish politicians to enact legislation which would ban goods from the settlements in Palestine which are illegal according to international law.

·         A socially distant vigil for the people of Palestine takes place on the Salthill promenade today (Saturday) at 2pm. People are asked to wear a face mask, not to gather in large groups, and to fly a flag or bring a placard for an hour. The Galway event is part of a global day of action for Palestine and there are at least 17 similar events taking place around Ireland. https://fb.me/e/3Z7X9Rcr

Ciaran Tierney is a digital journalist, tourism officer, and an award-winning current affairs blogger. Find him at http://ciarantierney.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ciarantierney

The head of the large march in Galway last weekend. Photo by Ciaran Tierney