(October 15, 2019 / JNS) Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team arrived in Israel this week ahead of a Tuesday match against the Palestinian national team in the West Bank.
On Sunday, the team was greeted by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and on Monday, they visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and prayed at the Al-Aqsa mosque.
This is the Saudi team’s first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories; it typically faced off against the Palestinian team in third countries. In the past, visiting the Palestinian territories was not possible because it requires requesting entry permits into Israel, which some saw as akin to recognizing the country.
While Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, the two countries’ leaders are believed to be meeting privately for the purposes of countering Iran’s power in the region.
Various anti-Israel groups spoke out against the team’s visit, including the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which called the match “dangerous” in the context of normalizing relations with Israel, as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which “rejected normalization through sport,” according to a Times of Israel report.
In recent years, Iraq, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain have also softened their strict anti-normalization policies to allow their teams to play in the Palestinian territories, though Egypt and Lebanon still refuse.
On Sunday, Abbas met with the team and told them, “We are proud of this visit, and we feel it embodies the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Palestine,” according to the WAFA news agency.
“Your arrival delights the Palestinian people,” said Abbas, according to the report.
During its Monday visit to Jerusalem, the team was briefed by local religious authorities about “Israeli police harassment” against worshippers at the mosque and “state-sponsored attempts by Jewish fanatics to take it over,” said the news agency.
Though various Israeli politicians, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, have suggested a change to the “unjust” status quo on the Temple Mount that does not allow non-Muslims to pray at the holy site, Israel has said it will not make unilateral changes in this regard, with Erdan saying in August that such a change would need to be achieved through “diplomatic agreements and not by force.”
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