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‘I’ve lost everything’: Palestine footballer Balah on Israel’s war on Gaza

In Sports, World
April 02, 2024

It had barely been three months since Palestinian international footballer Mohammed Balah made his long-awaited return to Al Sadaqa Football Club in Gaza when Israel launched its war on the strip following the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel.

Balah was happy to be back in his homeland and scoring goals for his childhood club in the Gaza Premier League.

He also got married to his eternal love in a beautiful ceremony.

Then, during match week five of the league, Balah sustained an injury in Al Sadaqa’s game against Khadamat al-Shati and was forced out of action.

The 30-year-old had hoped to be fit for Palestine’s international fixtures in October and be part of their AFC Asian Cup squad, but the war crushed his aspirations.

Born and raised in the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, Balah picked up football at six years of age and joined Al Sadaqa’s academy four years later.

During his first stint with Al Sadaqa between 2013 and 2017, Balah scored 42 goals in 70 appearances. The forward’s most prolific outing came during the 2016-17 season when the club won the league title and Balah was named the player of the season.

Like most Gaza-based players looking to move up in regional football, Balah went on to play for clubs in Jordan, Oman and Egypt following his standout year. It brought him a call-up to the Palestinian team and he went on to score one goal in nine appearances.

Now, he was back at Al Sadaqa as a marquee player. His signing was announced with fanfare on social media and the club won its first game of the league with Balah donning the number 10 shirt.

Mohammed Balah signing a contract with his childhood club Al-Sadaqa last June when he returned to Gaza [Courtesy Mohammed Balah]
Balah signed a contract with his childhood club Al Sadaqa in June 2023 after returning to Gaza [Courtesy: Mohammed Balah]

But when the war hit Gaza, all sports competitions were suspended and many players were forced to leave their homes in search of safety.

More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed during the war, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

The United Nations says up to 1.9 million people – more than 85 percent of the population – have been displaced across the Gaza Strip, some multiple times.

Balah, too, has gone through multiple displacements.

In an interview with Al Jazeera in Gaza, Balah talks about the war and its effect on him as a professional footballer in the besieged strip.

Al Jazeera: How has your life changed since October 7?

Mohammed Balah: My life was simple and filled with love and happiness before October 7.

[Earlier this year,] I returned to my childhood club and got married but since Israel launched its attacks on Gaza, I have been suffering endlessly.

I have had to flee six times with my family, starting from the day after the war when I fled from northern Gaza to the western area.

Now, we have come all the way south to the outskirts of Rafah where we are taking refuge in a dilapidated tent.

Much like all other Palestinians trapped in this war, I spend long hours without food and clean drinking water.

My physical fitness has taken a blow. I have lost weight.

Far from playing a game, I haven’t even kicked a ball in months.

Football is my passion. It’s also my source of income. I have lost everything.

Mohammed Balah (left) on his wedding day [File, courtesy Mohammed Balah]
Balah (left) on his wedding day [Courtesy: Mohammed Balah]

Al Jazeera: How did you feel when you were unable to join the Palestinian team during the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar?

Balah: It was depressing and painful but it is not the first time Israel has made it difficult for me to leave Gaza and join the national team.

I have been denied entry to the occupied West Bank and Egypt on several occasions in the past and, in fact, the last time I played for Palestine was nearly two years ago.

Al Jazeera: What is the biggest struggle for a professional footballer in Gaza?

Balah: It’s the Israeli occupation which makes it impossible for us to pursue our dreams and we end up seeking opportunities outside Gaza.

Football in Gaza is simply not the same as other places.

I have played football in Jordan, Oman and Egypt, and there is a stark difference in the financial backing, training facilities and development plans.

Al Jazeera: You have more than 40,000 followers on social media. What was their reaction to the war knowing you were in Gaza?

Balah: I was bombarded with messages of support from players and fans outside Gaza and it meant the world to me.

It showed that football unites people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Al Jazeera: How do you feel when you hear about the death of footballers and athletes in the war?

Balah: It breaks my heart. So many players and officials have been killed. Sports facilities and clubs have been destroyed by Israeli attacks.

I don’t know why FIFA remains silent in the face of Israel’s brutal attacks on Gaza’s football community and infrastructure.

When Israel destroyed my club Al Sadaqa it left me outraged, but the biggest loss came last month when Gaza’s legend and my beloved and kind friend Mohammed Barakat was killed by an attack on his house.

FIFA has always been vocal about humanitarian and equality with its campaigns but its ongoing silence over the war in Gaza is exposing its hypocrisy.

FIFA was quick to ban Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Then why are they still silent on Gaza?

Al Jazeera: How do you see your future amid the challenges posed by the war?

Balah: I had offers to join football clubs in Libya but I wasn’t able to leave Gaza due to the war and steep travel expenses. I am now trying to flee to Egypt with my family but am finding it difficult for the same reason.

I just want this horrific war to end.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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