Palestinian footballers' hopes dashed as Israel rejects permits

Israel justifies refusal of travel permit to Gazan football team by alleging it has "information linking most of the members of the delegation to terror", without providing any details.

GAZA CITY - Palestinian footballers were in despair after Israel rejected an appeal against a refusal of visas needed for players to leave Gaza for a long-delayed cup final, their team president said Thursday.

The second leg of the final of the Palestine Cup, played between the winners of cup competitions in the West Bank and Gaza, was initially delayed in July after Israel denied travel permits to most of Khadamat Rafah's players.

The Gazan side had drawn 1-1 at home with West Bank team Balata FC in the first leg, and the victors of the return leg would have represented the Palestinians in the Asian Champions League.

But this week an Israeli court rejected an appeal against the original decision, after security objections.

"There is frustration and despair among the players," Jamal Harb, president of Khadamat Rafah, said Thursday.

Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency said in a statement "a security examination revealed information linking most of the members of the delegation to terror."

It did not give further details.

Israel maintains a crippling blockade of Gaza that it insists is necessary to isolate the Palestinian enclave's Islamist rulers Hamas, but which critics label collective punishment of two million residents.

Any Palestinian seeking to travel between the West Bank and Gaza requires an Israeli permit, which is difficult to obtain.

In total Israel granted permits for 12 of the 35 Gazan team's players and club officials, said the Israeli military body responsible for civilian matters in the Palestinian territories.

Only five of those accepted were players -- the others were club officials -- said Israeli NGO Gisha, which had led the club's appeal.

"This case is another illustration of the extraordinary effort Israel exerts to prevent Palestinian travel between the parts of the Palestinian territory," Gisha said in a statement.