Clutching on to a football, the young Gazan player Mohammad Khalil looked into the camera and made a desperate plea to his idol Lionel Messi.
“I appeal to you in my name and the name of so many young people in Gaza who adore you not to come,” he said.
The camera pans down to Khalil’s heavily bandaged knees, which were destroyed by gunshots from Israeli snipers as he took part in protests in Gaza last month.
The pain of seeing his dreams of a football career disappear have been exacerbated by the scheduling of a World Cup warm-up match between Messi’s Argentina and Israel on Saturday. That the match was relocated last month from the national football stadium in Haifa to a stadium in a district of West Jerusalem that was once an Arab village has only added to Palestinian anger.
Israel is accused of politicizing the match by dragging the event into the 70-year celebrations of the founding of the state and using it to support the recent US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Messi and his club side Barcelona are revered by Palestinians, and many would have chosen Argentina as their team in the World Cup because of their adulation for the striker.
But with Palestinians increasingly resorting to boycott campaigns to maintain international pressure on Israel over the occupation, the match against Israel could change who they support.
The Palestine Football Association has repeatedly called on the Argentinian team not to come to Israel.
Jibril Rajoub, the association’s president, wrote to Claudio Tapia, the head of the Argentinian FA, last week accusing Israel of using the match as a “political tool.”
After no success, Rajoub on Sunday launched a campaign against Argentina and particularly Messi, noting that he has millions of fans across the Arab and Muslim world, Asia and Africa, and if he plays he will lose many fans.
“He’s a big symbol so we are going to target him personally and we call on all to burn his picture and his shirt and to abandon him,” Rajoub said after leaving the Argentinian representative office in Ramallah. “We still hope that Messi will not come.”
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which campaigns to end international support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, said there is nothing friendly about the upcoming game.
“The scheduled match will be part of Israel’s 70th-anniversary ‘celebrations’ and is taking place while Israel implements a criminal shoot-to-kill-or-maim policy against peaceful Palestinian protesters in Gaza,” a BDS statement said. “This makes the ‘friendly’ a whitewash of Israel’s crimes and therefore extremely unfriendly to human rights.”
The match takes place at a time of heightened tensions. More than a hundred Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces during protests in Gaza in recent weeks to mark the Nakba, or catastrophe, of Israel’s formation in 1948 and the U.S. relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Two-time World Cup winners Argentina will play at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium, built in the neighborhood of Malha, near the 1948 armistice line that separates the West Bank from Israel.
Before 1948, Malha was an Arab village of about 2,000 people, but they were forced to flee in April that year when Israeli paramilitary groups attacked. They were part of the exodus from their homes of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the Nakba.
Israeli authorities contributed funding for the match to be moved from Haifa to Jerusalem “under intense political pressure,” according to Israeli media, after President Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital in December.
Argentina had preferred that the match stayed in Haifa, but Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said the capital was the appropriate place to play such a prestigious game.
He even stoked tensions further with the inflammatory comment that Messi would have the chance to pray at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“We love Messi and we love Argentina but we are against any country or a player that refuses to stand with us for what is right,” Muntasar Dkedek, a sportswriter from Jerusalem, told Arab News. He said that when a team comes to Jerusalem and plays they “legitimize injustice.”
The Arab League has also urged Argentina to cancel the match.
“Israel is using the match for political purposes that have nothing to do with sports and is harming the rights of Palestinians guaranteed by international conventions,” the League said.
It added that Israel was attempting to “mislead Argentinians into believing that Jerusalem is united for the Jewish people.”
Rajoub has long tried to get the football world governing body, FIFA, and the International Olympic Committee to impose sanctions against Israel because it plays matches in clubs built inside settlements in the occupied West Bank. The settlements are deemed illegal under international law. FIFA rules forbid teams from playing in another member country without its approval.
Argentina have made four previous pre-World Cup stopovers in Israel since 1986.
As excitement spreads ahead of the World Cup, Khalil, the Palestinian player, has been left to lament what could have been. He is not sure if he will ever play again.
“I call on the Argentinian team and especially captain Lionel Messi, because he is very popular in Palestine and particularly in the Gaza Strip, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and to boycott the scheduled game with Israel, which is occupying our land.”
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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