Saudi soccer team prays at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa ahead of first West Bank game

Muslim officials tell players of ‘police harassment of worshipers, state-sponsored attempts by Jewish fanatics to take it over’; Israel has long denied plans to change status quo

Members of the Saudi national soccer team with Palestinian officials during a visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem's Temple Mount (WAFA Images)
Members of the Saudi national soccer team with Palestinian officials during a visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem's Temple Mount (WAFA Images)

Members of Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on Monday and prayed at the mosques there, ahead of their match Tuesday against the Palestinian national team in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority’s official news agency Wafa said local religious authorities “briefed the Saudi visitors about the situation at the Muslim holy site, particularly Israeli police harassment of the worshipers and state-sponsored attempts by Jewish fanatics to take it over.”

Palestinians have long accused Israel of seeking to take over the Mount or unilaterally change the status quo at the holy sites, an allegation Israeli leadership has consistently denied. As part of an arrangement in place since the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan, non-Muslims are barred from praying at the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest in Islam.

The compound has often been the site of clashes between Muslim worshipers and police.

The players and coaches of the Saudi national football team pray at the Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 14, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

In August, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Israel should perhaps work to change the status quo to allow Jew to pray, calling the current situation an “injustice.” But he clarified that he opposes introducing such a change unilaterally. “This needs to be achieved by diplomatic agreements and not by force,” Erdan said.

Jordan, which administers the religious site, was highly critical of the suggestion.

The visit by the Saudi soccer team is its first. The two teams will face off in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.

Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the Palestinian territories as it requires obtaining entry permits to Israel, a country most of them do not recognize. Tuesday’s game marks a change in policy for the kingdom, which has previously played matches against the Palestinian team in third countries.

Members of Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team are welcomed in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 13, 2019, where they will play for the first time their match in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup against Palestine in two days. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

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.

Saudi soccer fans are delighted about their national team’s historic match Tuesday against their Palestinian “brothers” in the West Bank, but dismiss suggestions it marks a gradual normalization of ties between the kingdom and Israel.

Palestinian public opinion is divided, with some seeing it as a boost for Palestinian soccer while others interpret it as signs of an unwelcome thaw between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Still, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement said that while the match is not technically a breach, it came “in the context of dangerous official normalization.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also said it “rejected normalization through sport.”

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Saudi Arabia was attempting a “balancing act” of quietly moving closer to Israel while also seeking to keep the Palestinians satisfied.

Palestinians welcome the Saudi Arabia national soccer team in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

“The Saudis are yielding to Ramallah’s request of playing in the West Bank in order to offset a sense that they are normalizing with Israel while ignoring Palestinian needs,” he told AFP, adding that official recognition of the Jewish state was unlikely.

On Sunday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with the team, telling them “We are proud of this visit, and we feel it embodies the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Palestine.”

“Your arrival delights the Palestinian people,” the official Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted him as saying.

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