Barcelona’s trip to Bethlehem is something that was always going to make international headlines. The combination of the Spanish football champions and one of the most famous towns in religious history ensured maximum publicity when the players took part in a “peace tour” of Palestine earlier this month.
Those of us standing around in baking temperatures to see global stars like Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas were certainly impressed. Their appearance, deep in the heart of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, galvanised thousands of Palestinians, many of whom later packed a new stadium in the town of Dura to watch Barça treat some 40 boys and girls to a football clinic. Many were left outside, but those lucky enough to get a place on the terraces stood among Palestinian and Catalan flags proudly waving in a show of solidarity.
“Barça will highlight our problems around the world and prove that we are not a forgotten people”, I was told by Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestine Football Federation. “This is the most important event in the recent history of Palestinian sport, and one which will make everybody look up and take notice.”
To complete the feeling of wild euphoria, the stadium was also filled with the magical singing of Mohammed Assaf, the 23-year-old from the Gaza Strip who in June had won the Arab Idol talent contest in front of a televised audience estimated at 100 million.
He was also flying the flag for his blighted nation, performing nationalistic songs and telling me that he thinks he will see a free Palestinian state in his lifetime. Assaf later met Messi and the two posed together for an image that heightened the feeling of unity and hope.
All of the famous figures involved must be praised for offering their time and effort to publicise Palestine’s tragedy, especially so close to the Arab-Israeli peace talks which resume this week. In an age of celebrity and mass media, events involving hugely talented individuals are as important in putting issues on the global agenda as the work of politicians and diplomats.
The atmosphere inside the Dura stadium was as stirring as the quiet moments of devotion inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity were inspiring.
What seemed strange to everybody the next day, however, was the speed with which Messi was filmed passing a ball to Shimon Peres, the Israeli president. Within a few hours of their big-hearted gestures on the West Bank, Barça were showing their solidarity with the very politicians who have done so much to oppress Palestinians and their dream of retrieving their stolen lands.
Of course peace is all about compromise, and there was every reason for the Spaniards to encourage the two warring sides to come together, but this tour inevitably descended into the kind of cruel fudge which characterises all attempts at resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict by foreign parties.
Barcelona’s visit coincided with Israel approving the construction of hundreds more settler homes on occupied lands. I saw many similar settlements sprouting on the hills and valleys on the dusty road to Bethlehem, just as the Barcelona players would have. They were surrounded by Israeli Army encampments, including garages full of armoured vehicles. Soldiers carried the latest in weapons technology. There were newly completed roads around the settlements – ones that are only open to Israelis.
These settlements are among the chief stumbling blocks to the American-sponsored peace talks, but men like Mr Peres are doing absolutely nothing to stop them. Quite the opposite – Israeli expansion has seen the settler population rise by almost 8,000 in the first half of this year alone, provoking worldwide disapproval.