Soccer players battle out Israel-Gaza conflict on the field and online

Israeli and, especially, Palestinian flags are being raised around the world by players showing their support for one side or the other in ongoing fighting

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Screen capture from video of Manchester United players holding a Palestinian flag after a game, May 17, 2021. (Twitter)
Screen capture from video of Manchester United players holding a Palestinian flag after a game, May 17, 2021. (Twitter)

Top-name soccer players have been taking sides in the ongoing deadly conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip, displaying their support on the turf or social media.

Since May 10, Palestinian terror groups led by Hamas have fired thousands of rockets at Israel, which has responded with hundreds of airstrikes on Gaza targets.

While most of the action has been pro-Palestinian, there have been cheers for Israel as well, with one Israeli soccer player trying to turn the tables on his peers by editing photos to make them seem as though they are supporting the Jewish state.

Some players in the UK have taken to waving Palestinian flags after games.

On Saturday Leicester City stars Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana held a Palestinian flag as their team celebrated winning the FA Cup Final.

Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot commended them in a letter on behalf of the Palestinian people, in which he extended “our profoundest gratitude” for showing “solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people.”

“One day, we hope Leicester Football Club will play in Jerusalem, the capital of the free state of Palestine,” he wrote.

The next day, Israeli soccer star Eran Zahavi, who plays for Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, posted to his Instagram page a photo of the two that had been edited to show them holding an Israeli flag instead.

“We appreciate your support all over the world,” Zahavi wrote.

Later that Monday, Manchester United players Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo marked their draw with Fulham by displaying a Palestinian flag at the end of the game.

Pogba was apparently given the flag by a fan as players did a lap of honor at the end of the game. In an Instagram post, Pogba called on his followers to “pray for Palestine” along with calls for peace.

Again, Zahavi posted an edited image showing them holding an Israeli flag with a message thanking them for support.

Zahavi’s behavior became a talking point on soccer websites and drew condemnation on social media, in particular from users in the Arab world.

Some called on his club, PSV Eindhoven, to take action against him.

Zahavi’s Wikipedia page was defaced and on Wednesday his biography included the text “We stand with Palestine.Zahavi has been named palestine Footballer of the Year twice (2013 and 2014) [sic]” replacing some of the details about his success in the Israeli soccer leagues.

Fellow Israeli striker Tomer Hemed, who plays for New Zealand club Wellington Phoenix in the Australia League, was under pressure after he celebrated scoring two goals during a game Sunday by wrapping himself in an Israeli flag he was given by fans in the stands, and then placing a yarmulke on his head and apparently offering a short prayer.

Phoenix general manager David Dome told New Zealand media that club officials have already spoken to Hemed about the incident, Reuters reported.

“I don’t expect a punishment but I think we will get a ‘please explain’ from the league,” Dome said.

Other UK players have also entered the fray, including Manchester City’s Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez and Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool.

On May 10 Mahrez tweeted a photo of a Palestinian flag along with the hashtags “#Palestine” and “#SaveSheikhJarrah,” the second a reference to a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where a real estate dispute between Jewish right-wing nationalist groups and Palestinian residents has stoked regional tensions as well as violent clashes in the capital.

In a May 11 tweet, Salah called on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and world leaders to “do everything in their power to make sure the violence and killing of innocent people stops immediately.”

Egyptian Mohamed Elneny, who plays for London-based team Arsenal, tweeted photos of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem along with the message “My heart and my soul and my support for you Palestine.”

Around the world, pro-Palestinian support also came from Club Deportivo Palestino in Chile. The team, established in the 1920s by Palestinian immigrants, wore keffiyehs before the kickoff of a game last week.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, players for Fenerbahce, an Istanbul-based team, donned T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Free Palestine” during a warm-up.

German star Mesut Ozil, who plays for the team, tweeted an edited photo showing a boy wearing his soccer shirt holding up a red card to what appeared to be an Israeli soldier.

However, pro-Israel support came from C.D. Guastatoya, a Guatemalan premier league club, which at the start of a recent Sunday game gathered to pose with an Israeli flag.

Israel’s ambassador to Guatemala welcomed the development but on Tuesday night it was reported that the team may face punishment from FIFA for using a political symbol during a game.

There has also been some speculation about legendary UK soccer star David Beckham, who last Wednesday posted to his Instagram page a photo of himself in which he appeared to be wearing a Star of David necklace and the caption “Beautiful morning.”

The image was seized on by Israel supporters, who claimed Beckham was showing subtle backing for the Jewish state.

However, the UK’s Sun newspaper, citing a source close to the Bechkams, reported that the photo was taken a month before it was posted — preceding the current fighting — and that the necklace is just a star design rather than a particularly Jewish icon.

Palestinian terror groups have fired thousands of rockets at Israel since last Monday, drawing heavy retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in the rocket fire from Gaza, and hundreds have been injured.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, at least 212 Palestinians have been killed so far in the nine days of the conflict, including more than 60 minors. It was not immediately clear if this ministry tally included all of those killed or if there were Hamas operatives not included in the count. According to the IDF, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night.

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