Palestinian Olympians from Gaza, Canada, US, Jerusalem compete in Tokyo

Palestinians are unlikely to make it to the podium, having qualified via wild card process rather than by merit; Gazan to be first-ever Palestinian Olympic weightlifter

Palestine's flag bearer Dania Nour and their delegation parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021. (Ben STANSALL / AFP)
Palestine's flag bearer Dania Nour and their delegation parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021. (Ben STANSALL / AFP)

Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and North America are set to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in their seventh time participating in the international games.

Five Palestinian athletes are set to compete at the Games, which were originally scheduled to take place last summer but were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A regular Palestinian delegation has been sent to the Olympics since the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. They have never picked up any medals, however, and are not favored to reach the Olympic podium in Tokyo, either.

The Palestinian team comprises two swimmers, a judoka, a weightlifter and a sprinter. The two swimmers, Dania Nour from Bethlehem, 17, and Canadian resident Yazan al-Bawab, 21, will participate in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle on Tuesday, respectively.

Palestinian-American Hanna Barakat, 21, is scheduled to compete in the women’s 100-meter sprint later this week. A student-athlete at Brown University, Barakat comes from an Olympic family: Her father, Mohammad Barakat, played hockey for the United States at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Wesam Abu Rmeila, from East Jerusalem, will represent Palestine in the men’s judo competition. The Palestinian judoka comes from a family deeply rooted in the martial art: His father and two of his brothers have competed internationally, according to a report in the Cairo-based channel Al-Ghad.

Finally, Mohammad Hamada from Gaza, a 19-year-old Palestinian weightlifter, will participate in the men’s 96-kilogram event. Hamada, who has already competed internationally, is the first Palestinian ever to compete in the sport at the Olympic level.

“Mohammad has achieved a long-awaited dream,” Hamada’s father, Khamees, told the Reuters news agency.

None of the Palestinian athletes this year qualified by meeting the Olympic athletic criteria, however, meaning they are unlikely to return home with a medal. The athletes instead entered the Games through a special process for underrepresented countries, known as a “wild card,” said Badr Aqel, who is leading the delegation.

The Palestine Olympic Committee is under the supervision of powerful Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, who also serves as the Palestinian party’s secretary-general. Rajoub is widely seen as a potential successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri (unseen) discussing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Most of Rajoub’s press appearances in recent months have come in the context of his lead position in negotiations with Fatah’s Hamas rivals. But he has also taken an interest in Palestinian sports, investing in soccer and Palestinian youth movements.

“We are working on a plan, led by Maj. Gen. Rajoub, that in our next competition in Paris, our participation will be by qualification, rather than by wild card,” Aqel told The Times of Israel in a phone call, referring to the anticipated 2024 Summer Olympics.

Aqel said the proliferation of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and travel made it harder for athletes to train and compete at the international level. Leaving and entering the West Bank for games, or inviting others to work with Palestinian athletes, requires Israeli approval.

Israel says the restrictions on movement are part of a system established to maintain security and prevent Palestinian terror attacks.

“Every time you want to bring coaches and experts from outside, you need approval from the Israeli government, and then you’ll find that they’ve blocked several of them from arriving, and eventually you have to cancel the whole thing,” Aqel said.

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