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Palestinians have clear favourite in Sweden-England match

A century after Balfour, England fans in Gaza are few and far between [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 July, 2018

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"I can't imagine a Palestinian supporting England, which created the Balfour Agreement, or not supporting the country that stood before the world and recognised our state".

As England prepare to play Sweden in a crunch World Cup quarter-final on Saturday, the Scandinavians will find strong support in a perhaps unlikely location: the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

In busy cafes where young men pack in to watch games while smoking shisha, the support for Sweden may be almost as strong as their dislike for England after a century of historical hurt.

Closed off by an Israeli blockade for the past decade, politics seeps into nearly every conversation in the strip, even when it comes to football.

In this game, for many Palestinians, there is a clear good and bad guy.

"Of course I will support Sweden," said 37-year-old Hisham Ahmed. 

"I can't imagine a Palestinian supporting England, which created the Balfour Agreement, or not supporting the country that stood before the world and recognised our state."

In 1917, the British government declared its support for the creation of a Jewish state in historic Palestine in a document called the Balfour Declaration.

The declaration is seen by Israelis as a key moment in the eventual creation of their country in 1948 in the biblical-era Jewish homeland.

Palestinians see it as leading to what they call the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel's creation at the end of the British mandate in the region.

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The agreement assured that the "civil and religious rights" of Palestinians would not be infringed, however the millions of displaced Palestinians living under military occupation go to show there was no such protection.

On the other hand, Sweden has long been a vocal supporter of the Palestinians and was the first European Union country to recognise Palestine as a state.

"Football is not removed from politics," said Ahmed, an accountant.

"These teams represent their countries and governments and will raise their flags in the stands. How can I support the country that allowed the Jewish state on our land?” 

His friend Abdullah al-Shanti agreed.

"Anyone supporting England is supporting Israel itself," he said.

"Britain is the one who created Israel and one of its largest supporters. [Sweden's] victory will make Palestinians happy as much as England's defeat."

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The World Cup tournament in Russia has been a welcome relief for Palestinians seeking a break from their difficult lives in Gaza.

The densely-populated and impoverished strip run by the Islamist Hamas movement suffers from crippling shortages of energy, clean water and other necessities.

Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars with Israel since 2008.

The United Nations has said the blockaded territory could be uninhabitable by 2020, however some of the organisation's officials say it already is.

At a recent game, the TVs went dark during the match as the power cut, until the familiar sound of a generator kicked in.

"I am a new follower to football. All the people in Gaza are watching the matches to vent their frustration [at life] under the blockade," said Shorouq Emad, 23, who was watching a match in a restaurant with her friends in Gaza City. 

"I hope Sweden win the trophy."

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