Ramallah (Territoires palestiniens) (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s national football team arrived in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Sunday, on a groundbreaking visit to play against Palestine on Tuesday.
The game will be played in the West Bank town of Al-Ram, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and marks a change in policy for the Gulf state, which has previously only played against Palestine in third countries.
Four years ago a similar game was ultimately played in Jordan after pressure on the Saudis not to go to Israeli-occupied territory.
Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the West Bank, where the Palestinian national team plays, as it obliged them to apply for Israeli entry permits, implying normalisation of relations.
But lately clubs or national teams from Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all visited.
Others, including Egypt and Lebanon, still refuse.
Saudi Arabia does not have official diplomatic relations with the Jewish state but the two countries are widely believed to have discreet contacts over Iran, their common enemy.
The team visit had been seen by some as breaching a decades-long Arab boycott of the Jewish state over its treatment of the Palestinians.
– ‘Very happy’ –
Palestinian public opinion is divided, with some seeing it as a boost for Palestinian football while others interpret it as signs of an unwelcome thaw between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Nada Hussein, coordinator of the Palestinian National Committee for the Boycott of Israel, said however it was within the rules.
“The visit of the Saudi squad does not go against the criteria of the boycott… provided that there is no connection during the visit with the state of occupation (Israel) or its institutions,” she told AFP.
Al-Ram Stadium is recognised by FIFA.
“You proved to the world that a visit to a prisoner does not mean normalisation with the jailer,” Ramallah governor Laila Ghannam said at a welcoming ceremony.
“We are very happy about your presence,” Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said in remarks to the Saudi Football Federation chief and his delegation.
“Your arrival delights the Palestinian people,” the official Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted him as saying.
The match is the first for the Saudi team in the playoffs for the Asian zone of the 2022 World Cup.