Britain Refuses Entry Visas To Gaza Soccer Players

Britain refuses entry visas to Gaza soccer players

By Nidal al Mughrabi
GAZA, Aug 23 (Reuters) –

Britain has refused entry visas to young Palestinian soccer players because it fears they may not be able to return home to Hamas-controlled Gaza following a three week trip and training camp in northern England.

“We were terribly shocked. The rejection has badly affected the spirit of the players,” said team manager Abdel-Hai Abu Saleem.

A British consular official in Jerusalem wrote to members of the squad, which goes by the name Palestine, to tell them they would not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom because they were unable to produce Israeli assurances that they could return home at the end of the trip.

The squad is made up of players under the age of 19.

The players were due to stay in England for three weeks and play matches in the towns of Chester and Blackburn in preparation for an official Asian championship qualification tournament in Uzbekistan in November.

A spokesman for the British consulate in Jerusalem said the visa applications were refused because they didn't meet the criteria under the UK's immigration rules.

“Generally, we are supportive of efforts to build links between Palestine and the UK and we have supported similar projects in the past. We regret that on this occasion we were unable to issue the visas which would have enabled the visit to go ahead,” the spokesman said.

Abu Saleem said the British consulate's fears were unfounded and that recently the same team travelled to Norway and that Norwegian officials helped them to secure their departure and return to Gaza via the Erez Crossing.

“The British officials are making weak excuses … They think that because Gaza is a poor place the players will not come back. We love Gaza and we will not abandon it,” he added.

For years, Gaza soccer players have encountered difficulties when trying to travel to tournaments abroad and matches have sometimes been postponed or cancelled because of Israeli travel restrictions out of the coastal territory.

The Palestine national team plays all its official fixtures abroad because the Palestinian territories are deemed unsafe to hold matches and there is no organised national league play.