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The rumble of continuous bombardment is a far cry from the sound of cheering fans and referees blowing their whistles – sounds that Ibrahim Abuimeir is used to.
The 21-year-old is part of the Palestinian national football team along with two other players in Gaza – Ahmed Kullab and Khaled Al-Nabris. The three should have been training for the World Cup Qualifiers. The Palestinian team is due to play against Australia on Tuesday in Kuwait.
But Ibrahim, Ahmed and Khaled were not able to make it to selections. They’re stuck in Gaza and every day they face the threat of being killed.
Ibrahim had a narrow escape. An air strike hit his neighbour’s home on October 30. The impact also destroyed Ibrahim’s house. Seventeen of his neighbours were killed in the attack.
“We found only one of the bodies intact. The others were ripped apart. Two bodies are still under the rubble. We haven’t been able to dig them out. We’ve had to identify people from parts of their bodies,” Ibrahim told Amr Tabash, a freelance journalist working for the BBC in Gaza.
“My grandparents were injured. It took us two days to pull them out.”
We spoke to Ahmed Kullab over the phone. “We find ourselves under a siege in a bloody conflict. The constant bombing makes life very unpredictable,” he said.
Ahmed’s cousin was killed in an attack. Two of Ibrahim’s teammates from Rafah Sports Club, his local team, have died. “They were sitting in their homes thinking they were safe, and they were bombed,” he said.
After days of trying his phone, we were able to contact Khaled who confirmed he’s in Gaza, but didn’t want to be interviewed.
Conditions are tough.
“Saltwater comes only once or twice a week. For drinking water, we currently rely on wells and water desalination using solar power,” Ahmed said.
Ibrahim, described by his trainers as one of the star defenders of the Palestinian team, starts his day standing in a queue for water.
They say they are grateful to have survived so far, but it is a bleak life without the sport they love and which gives it meaning.
“I’m heartbroken. Getting the chance to participate in the World Cup would have been significant,” said Ibrahim. “Football is my whole life. No words can capture the depth of my emotions. For 44 days I haven’t played, and each day gets harder than the previous one.”
In the grief of war, this is the heartache of losing out on an opportunity, which can be crucial in sporting careers that often have short time spans.
“Football has been a dream for me from a very young age. I was so excited that I might be called up to the first team of the Palestinian football team. I’m very sad,” said Ahmed.
Ibrahim says he was able to watch ten minutes of one of the matches played by the Palestinian team, and he felt both sad and proud as he watched.
I met Ehab Abujazar, one of the trainers of the Palestinian national football team, in Ramallah in the West Bank. He used to be a player himself and has trained Ahmed and Ibrahim for many years. Ehab’s family is in Gaza too.
“My father passed away on the second day of the war, from illness. Sadly I couldn’t travel to Gaza to bid him farewell and see him one last time because of the conflict,” he said. “Danger is ever-present in Gaza and my family are constantly moving to find safer places to take shelter.”
Ehab said that even before the war it was not straightforward for players in Gaza to be allowed out to play.
“The President of the Palestinian Football Association negotiated tirelessly with the Israeli government, and with the intervention of FIFA the process had been eased slightly,” Ehab said.
Ibrahim described the process. “We would leave our homes at 6am and gather at the Rafah crossing. Then we would wait in a hall on the Palestinian side for two to three hours until the paperwork was completed. Then we would pass over to the Egyptian side.
“We weren’t allowed to enter Egypt, but escorted to the airport and kept in a room there until it was time for our flights. Very often, we spent two days travelling,” he said.
“It was hard, but we didn’t mind as we were so preoccupied with the game,” he added.
With thousands killed during the war, I asked Ehab why it is important for the Palestinian team continue to play football.
“In times like these, it is crucial for the Palestinian team to play. It showcases our resilience, ” he said.
“Football is not merely a game for us; it is a method through which we strive to achieve the dream of an officially recognised state for every Palestinian.”
Ahmed has a similar message. “Football is powerful way to demonstrate that the Palestinian people, despite the challenges they face, are human beings, that they have ambitions, dreams and talents.”
Additional reporting: Amr Tabash in Gaza, Naomi Scherbel-Ball, Nathalie Jimenez and Haneen Abdeen in Jerusalem