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Palestinians find a bit of hope as their national soccer team advances in Asian Cup

Soccer fans wave Palestinian flags at the AFC Asian Cup Group C soccer match between Hong Kong and the Palestinian soccer team.
Giuseppe Cacace
/
AFP via Getty Images
Soccer fans wave Palestinian flags at the AFC Asian Cup Group C soccer match between Hong Kong and the Palestinian soccer team.

TEL AVIV, Israel — There were tears of joy on the soccer field Tuesday as the Palestinian national team beat Hong Kong 3-0 in the AFC Asian Cup.

The team made history as it secured its place in the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time.

The Asian Cup — hosted in Doha, Qatar, this year — is the top soccer event in the region.

The stadium erupted with joy, chanting "Palestine! Palestine!" and waving Palestinian flags and keffiyehs.

The win is a bright spot during a difficult time as the Israel-Hamas war rages in Gaza. Gaza's health ministry has said Israel's assault has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, the majority of which are women and children. It has been a reaction to the Oct. 7 attack in Israel in which Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people and kidnapped roughly 250 others.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, coffee shops were packed with people watching the match for the first time since the beginning of the war, and the atmosphere was festive.

Players from the Palestinian soccer team celebrate their second goal 2023 AFC Asian Cup soccer match with Hong Kong.
Giuseppe Cacace / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Players from the Palestinian soccer team celebrate their second goal in its 2023 AFC Asian Cup match with Hong Kong.

Waleed Abdullah said he celebrated the win with his son at a café.

"We were so happy and the result was incredible," he said. "The Palestinian people need hope, want something to be happy about, to feel alive, to want to love life."

Mohamed Aweida from Jerusalem watched the match with his friends and said the win was an incredible accomplishment.

"I've had no appetite to do anything [enjoyable] lately," he said. "But this is our national team, and I had to support it."

Like around much of the Middle East, soccer is a favorite pastime among Palestinians. But it has never been easy for the team. Israeli laws have hindered the players' mobility within the country and abroad, and have made it difficult to transport equipment. Israel has also sometimes refused to issue exit visas to players based in the occupied territories.

"Preparing for the Cup has been a challenge," forward Tamer Seyam told NPR. "It was hard for us to get together [as a team], and training was suspended from the beginning of the war."

The Palestinian team will play either Qatar or Australia on Sunday.

Nuha Musleh contributed to reporting.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.