‘I will never forgive them’: Gaza grieves atrocities at historic football stadium
After Israeli troops turned Gaza's historic Yarmouk stadium into a internment camp for detainees, Palestinians have responded by voicing grief while calling for FIFA & IOC to take action.
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In the scorching heat of a June afternoon in 2022, Ismail El Masry, a retired Palestinian football player, made his way onto the pitch at Yarmouk stadium to take part in an interview.
Dressed in a teal tracksuit and supporting himself with a crutch beneath his right armpit, El Masry spoke fondly about his memories at the stadium and why it among Gaza’s most important sports facilities.
“This stadium is not only beloved by athletes, but by the entire country,” El Masry told a Lebanese TV station. “This was the key to Palestinian sports.”
“Palestinian football evolved from here. We had nothing else. That is why it is so beloved by our people,” he continued.
El Masry is among the many Palestinians who hold fond memories of Yarmouk Stadium. He spent years playing professional football on this field and attended numerous other matches in the humble stands that encircle the pitch.
The stadium is also among the oldest in Gaza. It was built in 1952 under the auspices of the Egyptian monarchy, which occupied and governed the coastal strip at the time. Over the years, it has evolved into a pivotal hub for Palestinian sports, accommodating various sporting clubs and boasting stands with a capacity for up to 10,000 spectators. Its substantial size has not only made it a prominent venue for sports events but also a popular choice for hosting festivals, weddings, and other celebratory gatherings in Gaza.
Yet more than 70 years after its founding, Yarmouk stadium—once a symbol of joy and hope for the people of Gaza—has transformed into the site of humiliation amid Israel’s ongoing war on the besieged strip.
On December 26, 2023, harrowing footage emerged showing Israeli troops turning Yarmouk stadium into a makeshift internment camp for Palestinian detainees. Dozens of men, women and children were rounded up, stripped down to their underwear, and blindfolded while armed soldiers and tanks encircled the field. A soldier carrying a baby wrapped in a blanket could be seen at the end of the video.
More footage continued to emerge, including photos showing tanks patrolling the field, soldiers posing in front of a group of detained women and children, and blindfolded men and women forced to kneel in front of a goal with the Israeli flag attached to the netting.
The transformation of Yarmouk Stadium into a detention centre drew ire from the Palestinian Football Federation, which announced that it sent letters to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA demanding an "urgent international probe into (Israeli) occupation crimes against sports and athletes in Palestine".
“In the latest example of Israeli fascism, the occupation showed us horrific images during its invasion of the Yarmouk Stadium in the Gaza Strip, and turned it into a detention centre where it abused and interrogated our people,” the PFA said in a statement.
“This blatant and scandalous violation of all covenants is added to a long series of violations against Palestinian sports, including the killing and arrest of players. This is a crime that the international sports institutions cannot tolerate, silence and ignore.”
PFA president Jibril Rajub added that the Gaza war wreaked havoc on "sports and youth" movements. He cited the PFA’s recent report cataloging Israel’s sports violations, which revealed that 85 Palestinian athletes, including 55 football players, have also been killed since the beginning of the war. The figures included 18 children and 37 teenagers.
In addition to the atrocities witnessed within Yarmouk stadium, Israeli forces further solidified its devastation by employing tanks and bulldozers to level the pitch.
This isn’t the first time that Yarmouk stadium has been impacted by war. The stadium had previously been subjected to intense bombing during an eight-day campaign by the IDF in November 2012 that destroyed a large portion of the stadium. The facility was later rebuilt to include a running track that was used for non-football events such as Palestinian Youth Athletics Championships.
Nevertheless, the recent atrocities at Yarmouk stadium has weighed heavily on many Palestinians, including Hazem Harb, a Palestinian artist whose family has a long and cherished history with the stadium.
“I wasn’t a big fan of football or sport in my childhood, art was my only obsession,” Harb told Sports Politika. “But I grew up in a big sporty family, that loved football especially. My father and uncle Mahmoud were coaches at Yarmouk Stadium.”
“I have great memories in this stadium. Seeing the very same stadium turned into a concentration camp, where possible field executions are taking place, is the most horrific sight. Turning our beautiful memories into a dystopian nightmare,” Harb continued.
“Israel’s war crimes know no end, they have turned my Gaza into a mass grave and I will never forgive them for it, the whole world won’t forgive them for it.”
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