As the West wavers, Arab athletes set global standard for solidarity with Gaza
Arab athletes are spearheading solidarity movements with the Palestinian people while the Western sports world remains woefully silent.
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After scoring the first of a hat-trick of goals for Turkey's Pendikspor club in its 5-3 victory against Isparta on Tuesday, Ahmed Hassan Kouka dedicated the goal to Reem, the 3-year-old girl who was killed by Israeli air strikes last month while sleeping in her bed.
It happened during the 53rd minute of the match, when the Egyptian striker stood before celebrating fans and lifted his jersey to reveal a picture of the deceased and bloodied Reem being hugged by her grieving grandfather Khaled Nabhan. The picture was accompanied by an Arabic phrase that roughly translates to “the essence of the soul,” which is how the grandfather described his granddaughter’s innocence.
The family was asleep when the airstrike brought down their home after hitting the Al Nuseirat refugee camp in southern Gaza. Khaled woke up screaming for his children and grandchildren.
“I couldn’t find anyone, they were buried underneath all this rubble,” he told CNN.
Reem and her 5-year-old brother Tarek are among more than 6000 children who have been slaughtered in Gaza since Israel declared war on Hamas in the wake of the terror attacks on Oct. 7. However, Reem also became a recognizable face around the world following a widely shared clip of Khaled’s grief as he hugged his granddaughter’s lifeless body goodbye.
“I used to kiss her on her cheeks, on her nose and she would giggle,” he said in the video. “I kissed her but she wouldn’t wake up.”
Reem’s death coupled with her grandfather’s grief elevated the pair to a symbol of the collective punishment levied at Palestinians by the Israeli state for Hamas’ crimes. It underscored the brutality of the Israeli Defence Force’s military campaign and put a face to the innocent victims in the line of fire—a face that is now emblazoned on an Arab athlete’s shirt as a show of solidarity with Gaza.
Kouka’s actions are a reminder that Arab athletes are spearheading solidarity movements with the Palestinian people while the Western sports world remains woefully silent.
I recently spoke with Dave Zirin—a pioneer of sport-politics journalism in the US—for his Edge of Sports show on The Real News, where I discussed various examples of Arab and Muslim athletes showing support for Palestine—sometimes at great cost to their careers—and how it stands in stark contrast to the response from pro sports leagues in the US.
Among the examples I mentioned was French-Algerian footballer Karim Benzema, whom France’s minister of the interior accused of having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood after he expressed support for Palestine.
“Benzema is notoriously linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, we all know it,” said Gerald Darmanin, a right-wing minister who once opposed gay marriage, criticized dedicated isles for halal and kosher foods in supermarkets, and has been a staunch supporter of the country’s police brutality and mistreatment of protesters.
A French senator later called for Benzema to be stripped of his Ballon d'Or—the highest individual award for a football player—and to be deprived of his French nationality.
Another notable example mentioned in the discussion is Dutch-Moroccan footballer Anwar El Ghazi, who had his contract with Bundesliga club Mainz 05 terminated following a pair of social media posts, one of which included the slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
In my native Egypt, the country’s leading football clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek have each expressed solidarity with Palestinians, while players from various clubs in the Egyptian Premier League have found creative ways to show their support and call for peace. For example, several Al Ahly players flashed the peace sign associated with Handala, the cartoon character that emerged as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. The cartoon was created by political cartoonist Naji al-Ali in 1969 remained popular following al-Ali’s assassination in 1987.
Elsewhere, Liverpool’s Egyptian star Mohamed Salah was one of the few athletes who shared a video calling for an immediate ceasefire and for humanitarian aid to be provided to Gaza.
“Humanity must prevail,” the Egyptian concluded.
Even the occasional show of support from Western clubs is met with repercussions. UEFA—the governing body of football in Europe—fined Scottish club Celtics FC after its fans waved thousands of Palestinian flags during the match against Atletico Madrid last month. The club was previously fined in 2016 after fans flew Palestinian flags during a 5-2 victory against Israel's Hapoel Be'er Sheva.
In a statement, UEFA’s deemed the flags to be “provocative messages of an offensive nature.”
While the West falters in its response to an ongoing war that has cost the lives of more than 14,600 Palestinians, Arab athletes remind us that the true power of solidarity lies in those unafraid to break the silence.
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