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Spiers on Saturday: football can rebuild bonds Middle East war destroys

IT is worth dwelling on how different his life might have been had Celtic's Biram Kayal chosen to play his international football for Palestine rather than Israel.

As an Arab-Israeli, Kayal could have played for either nation, given his ethnic background.

In this context you use the word "nation" with caution. Palestine, a national football team without a country as such to speak of, has ascended recently to an all-time high of 85th in the FIFA world rankings. Meanwhile, bombs and shell-fire rain down on their homeland, with distinguished Palestinian football figures such as Ahed Zaqout being killed amid the carnage of recent weeks.

As Kayal grew up, Palestine football was in a pulverised state, and not a lot has changed in recent times. Israel, to be frank, offers a far safer haven for any athlete.

Sepp Blatter, an often criticised and lampooned FIFA president, has in this context for once distinguished himself. Blatter has set up an Arab-Israeli task force at FIFA to attempt to bring progress within football - and maybe even beyond - to the nation. Blatter has also, it has to be said, shown a decided sympathy for the Palestinian cause and its football team, which has to prevail amid the bombing and which can scarcely find an opponent brave enough to come to the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium in the West Bank to play a match.

All aspects of life are suffering in Palestine right now and football is not being spared. "I'm very concerned with the situation in the region," said Blatter. "We are heartbroken to learn that people from the football community have been killed in Palestine. I'm hopeful that, somehow, football can help to build bridges between the people of Israel and Palestine. In a nutshell, what we want to see is an ease of movement of teams, referees and football equipment in and out of Palestine."

This sounds lofty, idealistic, slightly fluffy stuff from Blatter. And yet the Palestinians, like the Scots, love their football. In the current climate in Gaza, with homes being razed by the Israeli bombardment, it is no place for either adults or children to be playing the game.

On the West Bank three days ago two further Palestinian footballers, Mohammed Qatari and Udai Jaber, were killed amid protests about the war on Gaza. The West Bank, where 2.1 million Arabs live beside 500,000 Jewish Israelis, is a tinderbox ever ready to erupt.

The very mention of Palestine or "the state of Palestine" remains bewildering for anyone not steeped in the Middle East mayhem. This might be the only country on the FIFA football map which does not actually have a hermetically-sealed landmass to call home.

The de jure state of Palestine refers to the scattered Arab-populated territories, many of them occupied by Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967. Principally, Palestine consists of the West Bank, Gaza and parts of the Negev, with cities such as Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus incorporated within its strewn borders. It is a chaotic and tragic area in which football - like everything else - seeks to survive.

"We face an ongoing and very difficult - sometimes impossible - situation," Ghassan Jaradat of the Palestinian FA told me last week. "Life is very uncertain here."

The death of Ahed Zaqout - as well-known in Palestinian football as Kenny Dalglish is in Scotland - brought a chill to a nation well used to such atrocities. A legendary Palestinian player, coach and broadcaster, Zaqout had no known connection to Hamas. His wife described in over-graphic detail the moments she heard a colossal explosion in their house in Gaza before rushing through to find her husband soaked in blood on the floor. "They took my husband to hospital but I knew he was already dead," she said.

Jibril Al Rajoub, the president of the Palestine FA, believes that football remains a vital cog for Palestinian hope and self-esteem.

"We need to try to develop and invest in football in Palestine, despite the difficulties we face," said Rajoub. "We believe football should remain a tool to build bridges between people. Personally, I've been very saddened by the loss of Palestinian life in the conflict."

Rajoub then spoke words which cut right to the heart of this tragedy, and which proved that football cannot be divorced from the political end-game. "We're still optimistic that peace will prevail in the Middle East and that the Palestinian people will realise our dream of an independent, sovereign state alongside our neighbours, including the state of Israel, according to international legitimacy."

Somehow, Palestinian football goes on. The country has played a series of games in 2014 against such as Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and the Maldives, winning three of its last four matches. You might laugh at this eclectic mix of opponents - but try being in Al Rajoub's position of enticing opponents to the melting-pot of the West Bank for a fixture.

Blatter, meanwhile, has gone to extraordinary lengths to be mindful of the Palestinian plight. He has met both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Rami Hamdallah, Netenyahu's Palestinian equivalent, to plead the case for football's survival in the region. Right now, the thought of an Israel-Palestine fixture is too much to contemplate.

Kayal, perhaps painfully, will tell you that Israel has no real problems carrying out its fixtures - it is the Palestinians who, despite FIFA's recognition and help, cannot really feel secure in the world game.

"I've asked for Prime Minister Netanyahu's help and he has asked me to help him so that football is not used as a political tool," said Blatter. "I explained to him the content of the mandate I've been given by the FIFA - to try to help the football associations of Israel and Palestine. We must continue to work on this issue."

The problem Blatter has is that, on all available evidence, Netanyahu seems less keen on Palestine than he is. Over recent decades it was ever thus. The Palestinians - literally - are the fall guys.

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