In first, Moroccan soccer team plays in West Bank, Saudis next
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Previously, teams stayed away as part of boycotting Israel

In first, Moroccan soccer team plays in West Bank, Saudis next

Thursday’s game between Raja Casablanca and Palestinian team Hilal al-Quds outside Jerusalem marks slow shift in Arab attitudes on playing in Palestinian areas

Spectators hold a huge flag depicting Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock shrine during a match between Palestinian team Hilal al-Quds and Morocco's Raja Casablanca in the Arab Champions Cup at Faisal Husseini stadium in the town of al-Ram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, on October 3, 2019. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
Spectators hold a huge flag depicting Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock shrine during a match between Palestinian team Hilal al-Quds and Morocco's Raja Casablanca in the Arab Champions Cup at Faisal Husseini stadium in the town of al-Ram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, on October 3, 2019. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

AFP — For the first time, a Moroccan soccer team played against Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank on Thursday, as the head of the Palestinian soccer association announced the Saudi national team would also visit.

The Saudi game, due to take place on October 15 in the West Bank but as yet unconfirmed by Saudi authorities, would mark a change in policy for the Gulf state, which has previously only played matches against the Palestinian national team at home or in third countries.

Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the West Bank, where the Palestinian national team plays, as it requires them to apply for Israeli entry permits.

This was seen as breaching a decades-long Arab boycott of the Jewish state over its treatment of the Palestinians.

But in recent years clubs and national teams from Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all visited.

Spectators watch a match between Palestinian team Hilal al-Quds and Morocco’s Raja Casablanca in the Arab Champions Cup at Faisal Husseini stadium in the town of al-Ram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, on October 3, 2019. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Other teams, including in Egypt and Lebanon, still refuse.

Thursday evening’s match kicked off at 7 p.m. local time, with Raja Casablanca eventually beating Palestinian team Hilal al-Quds 2-0 in the Arab Champions Cup.

Players are seen in action during a match between Palestinian team Hilal al-Quds (blue) and Morocco’s Raja Casablanca in the Arab Champions Cup at Faisal Husseini stadium in the town of al-Ram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, on October 3, 2019. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

The Moroccan giants had won the first leg 1-0 at home, with the team’s supporters waving Palestinian flags and chanting songs supportive of the cause.

“We consider we are winners due to the presence of Raja Casablanca,” Hilal al-Quds’s sporting director Badr Makki said before the game started.

“But that doesn’t stop us hoping to win and progress.”

The game was being played at a stadium in Al-Ram, close to Jerusalem.

“We are delighted to be in Palestine to represent Morocco,” Raja Casablanca’s coach Patrice Carteron told a news conference late Wednesday.

According to the North Africa Post, one player from Raja and some 20 fans were denied entry from Jordan to the West Bank by Israeli authorities.

A member country of Palestine was first recognized by FIFA in the late 1990s, but the team and organization has grown in recent years.

Saudi Arabia is expected to play the Palestinian team in a World Cup qualifier on October 15.

Four years ago a similar game was ultimately played in Jordan after pressure on the Saudis not to enter the West Bank.

Palestinian soccer team Hilal al-Quds poses with a poster hailing Palestinian terrorist Mesbah Abu Sabih who killed two Israelis in a shooting attack in Jerusalem on October 9, 2016. (Facebook)

Speaking Thursday, the head of the Palestinian football association Jibril Rajoub announced the Saudi team would arrive on October 13.

The game to be played at the Al-Ram Stadium, which is recognized by FIFA, would not breach boycott efforts, he said.

“Those that don’t want the Arabs to enter Palestine and play are Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood,” Rajoub added.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, and any entry to the territory, including to visit Palestinian population centers, requires Israeli approval.

Uri Levy, head of the Middle Eastern soccer website Babagol, said there was a growing trend of Arab teams playing in the West Bank.

“People are starting to understand more and more this is something that will help Palestine and will make the Palestinian cause stronger, rather than saying ‘we are not going to play there,'” he said.

ToI staff contributed to this report.

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