"No leagues, no matches, and no games in Gaza," says Eyad al-Rais, a sports commentator for Palestinian radio and TV.
For about a year, the neighborhood sports centers remained open for youth leagues and amateur athletes who just wanted to kick around a soccer ball for fun. But then Hamas took over Gaza's 40 main clubs, almost all of which were administered by Fatah-affiliated directors and received partial funding from Fatah.
A neighbor of the Ittihad Al-Shajayia club, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions from Hamas, described what he saw from his window on July 17, 2008. One hour after midnight, he watched dozens of Hamas military jeeps surround the club. Armed men broke down the doors, changed all the locks, and declared the area a military zone. He said militants later converted the office building and locker rooms into a base for shooting rockets into Israel – a base Israel later bombed in its 2009 military offensive in Gaza.
Sports clubs are magnets for Gaza's young men, and some in Hamas wanted to keep them open, thinking they could "influence large numbers of youth and attract them to their side," says Mr. Rais.
Managers, coaches, fans push back
But the ousted managers couldn't stand the thought of Hamas men sitting in their old offices, with their feet up on their desks – so they asked Gazans to stay out. Rais began publishing op-eds against the political hijacking of Gaza's sports life. Coaches and fans also spoke out.
"Sports sends a message to the world that we are a civilized people," says coach Majid Abu Maraheel, the first Palestinian athlete to compete in the Olympics, as young trainees sprinted past him at Gaza's Al-Yarmouk stadium. "Both Fatah and Hamas leaders must realize that we want sports to represent Palestine – not to represent the factions."