Sports are often said to be a metaphor for life (and war.) In the last few weeks, sports and sports icons have figured prominently in Palestinian life in Gaza – and their missions, reception and accompanying public relations have spoken volumes about the values and goals of Hamas’ Gaza.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) sponsored French soccer star Lilan Thuram’s visit to the Kalandia Refugee Camp in early April. According to press reports, he “saw firsthand the realities of life for Palestinian children under Israeli occupation, before dropping in to the local UNRWA school to referee a soccer match between some of the camp’s young players.”
Thuram, who was appointed UNICEF France Goodwill Ambassador last October, also opened a new stadium in Palestinian Authority capital Ramallah. The 1998 World Cup winner said, “I think it is very important to come to these places to see the reality and this is the case of Palestine.” France donated almost $10 million to UNRWA last year.
Juxtaposed against the backdrop of the misplaced goodwill of pro-Palestinian athletes who look to blame Israel and export the Palestinian “political reality,” Tal Brody was recently appointed as Goodwill Ambassador by Israel. A legendary basketball player and an Israel Prize laureate, Brody highlights the positive deeds that Israel carries out around the world.
Brody immigrated to Israel from the US at the age of 23. He put Maccabi Tel Aviv on the map after beating CSKA Moscow in 1977, and later that year lifted the European Cup as the team captain. Similarly, LaVon Mercer, who played for several Israeli teams, carries Israel's goodwill message abroad. Both are frequent visitors to university campuses throughout North America, countering the pervasive hatred and anti-Israel propaganda so prevalent amongst university “activists” and lending support and strength to Israel fans on campus.
Back in Gaza, there is nothing that is not fair ammunition for Hamas' war against Israel. It's not enough to trot out well-meaning but essentially unsophisticated athletes like Thuram as mouthpieces - Israel has to be directly targeted as well, even in “neutral” venues like international sports.
Israeli athletes have been subjected to boycotts in international tournaments from wrestling to soccer and tennis - humiliated, protested and marginalized. Though it's been true for years, recently - fueled by the BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions) - sports has become an intensified battlefield where politics trumps sportsmanship and there is no defense against the barrage of propaganda.
UNRWA bears responsibilityUNRWA (Hamas' useful idiot, paying homage and service to the Hamas cause by way of its employees and its own bureaucratic intransigence) is now sponsoring its first-ever marathon to be held along the length of the Gaza Strip on May 5th – part of its Summer Games series and a fundraiser for its recreational programs for children.
At the end of April, UNRWA recorded $2,300 raised toward its $100,000 goal. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness gushed that “It just shows the world that kids in Gaza just want to be like kids anywhere else in the world. They don’t want to live in this terrible and locked-up environment.”
The culpability for such a terrible and “locked up environment” lies squarely with Hamas - and UNRWA - leaders. It's not just sports where Palestinian children are deprived of potentially peaceful messages and instead indoctrinated in hate and ignorance. Just before the annual commemoration of the murder of six million Jews for Holocaust Memorial Day, UNRWA workers rejected a Holocaust-awareness curriculum designed to be taught in United Nations-sponsored schools.
Stating that "We emphasize our adamant opposition to confusing the thinking of our students' by means of Holocaust studies in the human rights study curriculum,” the UNRWA Workers' Union suggested teaching students that Israel had massacred Arabs. “Emphasize study of the history of Palestine and the acts of massacre which have been carried out against Palestinians, the most recent of which was the war against Gaza,” the group said.
The bread-and-circus shows (not to mention the uncanny habit of hiding behind children – whether as human shields in missile attacks on Israel or as fodder for public relations campaigns in the guise of sports or education) cannot hide the true face of Hamas’ Gaza or the rot at the core of UNRWA’s co-opted and corrupted mission there.
Had UNRWA modeled its Summer Games after the Maccabiah Games - focusing on good will and sportsmanship - it would have marked a dramatic positive change in the organization's position. Instead, UNRWA (along with Hamas) chooses to emphasize values to Palestinian youth that contravene the UN charter and foster division rather than unity; and embed antipathy rather than recognition of mutual humanity.
Palestinian youths are being robbed of opportunities to be full members of the world community as athletes and scholars; they are being force-fed a diet of intolerance and hatred, deprived of the value of true healthy competition, and being steeped in an illiteracy in history and human rights that perpetuates generations of violence.
UNRWA bears responsibility for this travesty - visits from happy French soccer stars notwithstanding - by allowing itself to continue as a craven tool of Hamas campaign of recidivism against Israel.
Nicole Brackman, Ph.D. is a former Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.
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