Killing Hope: Why Israel Targets Sports in Gaza

Let's start with a fact. On November 16, the Israeli Air Force bombed the 10,000-seat Palestine Stadium "into ruins." The stadium also headquartered the center for youth sports programs throughout the Gaza Strip. This is the second time Israel has flattened the facility. The first was in 2006 and the people of Gaza have spent the last six years rebuilding the fields, stands, and offices to keep the national soccer team as well as club sports alive in the region.

I'm sure the reaction to this fact will depend on what side people take in the current conflict. For the Israeli government and their supporters, they promised “collective punishment” following the Hamas rockets fired over the border and they are delivering “collective punishment.” Matan Vilnai, deputy defense minister of Israel has in the past threatened a "holocaust" and Gilad Sharon, son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called for Gaza to be the new “Hiroshima.” In this context, a sports facility must seem like little more than target practice.

For those attending daily demonstrations against the carnage, this news of a stadium’s destruction must also be seen as an irrelevancy. After all according to The Wall Street Journal, 90 Palestinians, including 50 civilians, have been killed in Gaza. 225 children are among the more than 700 injured and these numbers are climbing. Israeli ground troops are massing at the border and President Obama can only bring himself to defend Israel without criticism. There is only so much concern for a stadium people can be expected to muster.

I think however that we should all take a moment to ask the question, "Why?" Why has the Palestinian sports infrastructure, not to mention Palestinian athletes, always been a target of the Israeli military? Why has the Palestinian domestic soccer league only completed seven seasons since its founding in 1977? Why are players commonly subjected to harassment and violence, not to mention curfews, checkpoints, and all sorts of legal restrictions on their movement? Why were national team players Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate killed by the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2009 military campaign? Why did imprisoned national team player Mahmoud Sarsak require a hunger strike, the international solidarity campaign of Amnesty International, and a formal protest from both FIFA and the 50,000-player soccer union FIFpro to just to win his freedom after three years behind bars?

The answer is simple. Sports is more than loved in Gaza (and it is loved.) It’s an expression of humanity for those living under occupation. It’s not just soccer and it’s not just the boys. Everyone plays, with handball, volleyball, and basketball joining soccer as the most popular choices. To have several thousand people gather to watch a girls sporting event is a way of life. It’s a community event designed not only to cheer those on the field, but cheer those in the stands. As one Palestinian man from Gaza said to me, “[Sports] is our time to forget where we are and remember who we are.”

Attacking the athletic infrastructure is about attacking the idea that joy, normalcy, or a universally recognizable humanity could ever be a part of life for a Palestinian child. This is a critical for Israel both internationally and at home. The only way the Israeli government and its allies can continue to act with such brazen disregard for civilian life is if they convince the world that their adversaries collectively are less than human. The subway ads calling Muslims “savages”, the Islamophobic cartoons and videos that are held up as examples of of free speech, are all part of a quilt that says some deaths are not to be mourned.

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At home, attacking sports is about nothing less than killing hope. Israel’s total war, underwritten by the United States, is a war not only on Hamas or military installations but on the idea that life can ever be so carefree in Gaza as to involve play. The objective instead is to hear these words of a young girl outside Al Shifa Hospital on November 18th who said, "To the world and people: Why should we be killed and why shouldn't we have a normal childhood? What did we do to face all this?"

If you play, you can dream. If you dream, you are imagining a better world.  As the great Olympian Wilma Rudolph said, “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Nothing marks the nihilism of Israel’s project quite like this fact: they don’t want the people of Gaza to dream. In the eyes of Benjamin Netanyahu, they are only worthy of nightmares.

[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the SportsWorld Upside Down” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]

14 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Zirin's analysis may be a little short here

I usually like Zirin, but I think his analysis may be a little short here. I think it is important to think about Palestinian sport on the international stage.
I keep coming back to the idea that Palestine is the only non-state nation that I can think of that has its own Olympic team (Kurdistan doesn't, Catalan doesn't, Scotland doesn't). In a very real way, to a very large part of the world, Palestine is a nation because it has an Olympic team. And for many Palestinians, sport is the primary place to demonstrate their own national identity in a (relatively) peaceful way. Sport can "put Palestine on the map" in a literal way.
So, although Zirin reduces the Israeli attacks on Palestine to attempting to kill hope, I think it is important for us to remember that sport (especially international sport) is always already political. With all due respect to Zirin, sport is not play. Play is unstructured, informal (physical) activity done for its own sake. Sport is not this. It is formalized, standardized, rationalized. The institutionalization of modern sport cannot be decoupled from classist, racist and sexist discourses of the late 19th century. Sport is a site for both reactionary and resistant political action and I would argue that in targeting Palestinian sporting infrastructure, Israel is reacting to Palestinian (sporting) resistance. One end result might be one of "killing hope", but I think that it is also more than that.

Or it might've been the rockets launched from the Stadium

The IDF has said that the stadium was being used to fire rockets. Given Hamas' history of using civilians sites as shields, and the population density of Gaza Strip, it is quite possibly true.

But Zirin doesn't even mention that report. He has abandoned any pretense of being a journalist, and become a regurgitator of propaganda.

He is what Lenin used to call one of the "useful idiots."

Something I've been saying for awhile here. . .

Bibi's gone bye bye.

"Total war"...?!?

Komrade Zirin, you Leftist self-hating Jewish scum, you call Israel's belated response to 1200 Iranian-supplied rockets launched at civilians since January an exercise in "total war"?

Total war like the leveling of Dresden? Or nuking Hiroshima/Nagasaki? Or firebombing Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia? Or Saddam gassing entire cities of Kurds? Or how about Assad's Syria flattening of Hama in 1982, conduct that's continued until this day? THAT'S total war, you historically-revisionist dimwit.

Zirin, shame on you for scapegoating the only Jewish State in the world surrounded by terrorist Muslim hordes. But at least you got Lefty cred with your unshaven underarmed Code Pinkers, pseudo-academics like "matt" above talking about "discourses" (can I help you masturbate, matt -- there is no State of "Palestine", yet) and, of course, Islamic terrorists. Nice bedfellows, Zirin.

"self hating Jewish scum"?

When will American Jews be allowed to criticize Israel without being reduced to "self hating Jewish scum" by hysterical frat boys like jjdynomite?

He's not a frat boy

He's nothing more than a right wing propagandized piece of s..t

Too stupid to realize Israelis are as much terrorists as the Palestinians.

Ignoring one side's violence while trumpeting the others.

The FACTS are that ALL of them in the region are disgusting. Religious fanatics of ALL kinds....including AMERICAN christian not deserve one IOTA of respect.

And the MODERATES in the region are disgusting too...cause they won't stand up to the idiots of their own race.

Children...ALL of them...just like jjdynomite....intellectually stunted one dimensional thinking primitive fools.

please respond david

David, I think you owe it to your readers to please respond to how are you able to present 1 side of this story when there a different views on what happened in the stadium.
also,is not hamas and the people who empowered them, attacking sport as well, in that they are arbitrarily firing hundreds of rockets at towns and making it unsafe to go out and play outdoors?

please respond david

David, I think you owe it to your readers to please respond to how are you able to present 1 side of this story when there a different views on what happened in the stadium.
also,is not hamas and the people who empowered them, attacking sport as well, in that they are arbitrarily firing hundreds of rockets at towns and making it unsafe to go out and play outdoors?

Zirin is Spot On

Based on a reasonable understanding of the facts reported by responsible independent journalists on the ground in Gaza and Israel, Dave Zirin's article is a straightforward essay on the horrific and vicious behavior by the Israeli right wing government - all sponsored by their financier and shadow partner in Washington.

As well, Dave's unique look at how killing sports also kills spirit is an unfortunate but stark reality - one that needs to be reported on and addressed.

And Dave doesn't "owe" his readers a goddamn thing... his searing and courageous article more than speaks for itself.

re: zirin is spot on

steve (and dave),
there are also "responsible independent journalists on the ground in gaza and israel that have reported that both hamas rockets and israeli rockets hit the stadium.
and when dave asks in the article why israel targeted the stadium, why not act like a responsible journalist and also include the israeli government's answer to why, which is, that hamas was using the stadium as a launch pad for their rockets.
and finally steve and dave, shouldn't a responsible journalist report somewhere in an article about this war, point out that hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist organization?

Terrorist Organizations

Since you've started a list of terrorist organizations, let's not forget to add the US client state of Israel and, of course, the largest wholesale terrorist organization the planet has ever witnessed - the United States of America.

And your line about adding the Israeli government's "facts" is really quaint... First rule of journalism was proffered perfectly by I.F. Izzy Stone: "All governments lie, and they lie most about war."

Your defense of the ongoing Israeli-US murder spree is laughable and pathetic.

Israel's Excuse

1. They claim that rockets were fired from the stadium. So you blow up a whole stadium?
2. Is there any credible independent evidence that rockets were fired from the stadium or the area. IDF spokespersons always make that charge. In the last big attack they blew up a U.S. school in Gaza with the same BS excuse.
3, Matt's comment amounts to saying that sports is involved in politics, well that the whole point of the site. That doen't mean all sports sites are military targets!
4. Learn something about the conflict at


People who criticize power in the Jewish community are regarded the way Ahab treated Elijah: You're a traitor. (Also see Jeremiah, Amos, etc.) You've got to serve power. You can't argue that the policies that Israel is following are going to lead to its destruction (or you are a self-hating Jew, and you don't want to be THAT, do you Dave?) Now at the time, there were intellectuals, “prophets,” who were very well treated. They were the flatterers of the court. Centuries later, they were called “false prophets.” (But, oh well, at the time they did pretty well, likely they wrote for ESPN Judea...)


Did Hamos use the stadium as a lauch pad?

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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