The Jordanian professional soccer team Al Wihdat plays at the heart of a refugee camp, both literally and figuratively, and is both a literal and figurative product and reminder of dispossession. Palestinian refugees and their descendants are the backbone of the club’s fanbase; their jerseys are red, green, and black, with a white stripe, a decidedly non-accidental reflection of the Palestinian flag. The badge on the jersey features an image of the Al-Aqsa Mosque or Dome of Rock, a long-time symbol of Palestinian resistance and nationalism. They’re a team, but they’re also much more than that.
“I’ve been a supporter of the club since I can remember, probably since I was in kindergarten,” said Jehad Jamal, a member of the club’s supporters group, Al Wihdaty. “I was even forced out of college for defending the club’s colors, [but] Palestine is a major part of my life and who I am.”
Internationally, Al Wihdat is as obscure as any pro side could be. For the people that care about the team, though—a fan community that reaches from refugee camps across some of the most disputed borders in the world—it’s not just a side to support. The club is named after the Al Wihdat refugee camp, also known as the Amman New Camp, which was established in 1955, seven years after the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and villages such as Deir Yassin, Ein Al Zaytoun, Balad Al Sheikh, and Al Dawayima by Zionist militant groups; the soccer team was established in 1956.
For those displaced people (including those in my family, who hail from the depopulated Palestinian villages of Samakh and Hadatha), Al Wihdat is a team that represents them—Jordan’s large Palestinian population, who were expelled and fled their occupied homeland in the hopes of rebuilding lives shattered by conflict, displacement, and the ongoing occupation. It’s a responsibility the team itself takes seriously. “We represent all Palestinian people and we play like we represent them,” said Ahmed Elias, who plays for Al Wihdat. “We try to draw a smile on their faces.”
“Al Wihdat represents home and I’m very proud of them. I have been supporting them since I was a young kid,” said Ahmad Maher, a Palestinian international footballer, who currently plays for Palestinian side Shabab Al Dhahiriya. “Everybody in Palestine cheers for them because it’s a Palestinian team and they represent the Palestinian contingent in Jordan. Here, there is no difference in the love between our local side and Al Wihdat.”
“After the Nakba of 1948,” recalls Zakaria Al Awadi, a sports journalist close to the club, “a great number of Palestinians sought refuge in Jordan to escape death. A majority of them hail from [depopulated] Palestinian villages like Al Lydd, Beersheba, Bait Nabala, Al Ramla, Al Abbasiya, and Deir Tarif. The first place they headed towards was Al Karama, where preliminary camps were created for them in light of assurances that they would be allowed to return to their homes. But unfortunately that promise never came to fruition.” The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East was established to deal with the rising number of refugees and today runs around 60 refugee camps in which around five million Palestinians live. The Wihdat refugee camp is one of the first four camps set up after the dispossession in 1948, and houses over 51,000 refugees in a space smaller than half a square mile in size.
When Al Wihdat won their first league title in 1980, five years after promotion to Jordan’s top flight, Dag Tuastad, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Oslo and author of Al Wihdat: The Pride of the Palestinians in Jordan, said that huge celebrations erupted not only in Jordan, but also in Palestine itself. Fans chanted slogans comparing the players to “fedayeen,” or Palestinian guerrilla fighters. “When they grabbed their first cup in 1980, that still holds a special place,” recalled Nasser Al Amayra, who works for the Palestinian FA. “It was 1-0 for Al Wihdat, which was suspended and later won the replay two goals to one. It was the launching point.”
Like many fans, Al Wihdat supporters have created a language with which to support their team—a special honk of car horns and chants like “God, Wihdat, and Jerusalem is Arabian,” and “I’m a Wihdaty, son of the refugee camps,” that are as much about Palestine as the team. But there’s something else at work here. “Al Wihdat supporters differ a lot from other supporters,” said Omar Anati, a photographer who works for the club. “The passion for it isn’t just for the trophies and accolades, but also because of the homeland, our homeland, that was robbed and taken away from us. And so the club is the only part or symbol that remains or remained as a reminder of our dispossession. Because of this, our support of this club reaches the point of death.”
This is never more true than in the case of Al Wihdat’s highly-contested rivalry with Jordan’s most successful club, Al Faisaly. It goes beyond their competition for silverware as the two biggest football clubs in the country, and is grounded in their identities and background. While Al Wihdat are mainly supported by Palestinians, Al Faisaly is mainly supported by East Bankers or Hashemite Jordanians—fans who, as football journalist James Montague noted, see themselves as the “true Jordanians.”
“Let’s say that when the two clubs meet that 98 percent of Palestinians interested in the sport will support Al Wihdat,” said Mahmoud Abu Obaid, a reporter for Kooora Palestine. “And especially if that club has any Palestinian within its ranks like Al Wihdat’s Murad Ismail. In the past, the support for Al Wihdat was very vociferous when the trident of Fahed Attal, Al Bahdari, and Keshkesh were a part of their squad.”
The games themselves are less lopsided in how they play out. Many Al Faisaly fans have long disapproved of the presence of Palestinian settlements in Jordan, and that anger is impossible to miss when the teams play. Fights, quarrels, even riots and racist chants against Palestinians—a tension enhanced by the marriage of Jordan’s king to a woman of Palestinian origin—are common when the two play. It’s one of the fiercest sports rivalries in the Middle East. That ferocity reached a new level after a match in 2010.
“It was that match where Al Darak forces hit Al Wihdat fans at the stairway,” Fida Sultan, a board member at Al Wihdat, recalls. “They tried to run away towards the fences in fear, but too many people got smashed and trampled underneath those who were attempting to flee.” Hundreds of supporters were injured, and the club froze operations before being pressured to undo the freeze in exchange for a promise from league officials that it would never happen again.
It has happened again. “The things that occur the most, after every game, is that Al Faisaly fans throw rocks at us and we get beaten by Al Darak forces,” Jehad claims. “They also chant derogatory remarks towards Palestine—‘God bless your hand, [Ariel] Sharon for stomping all over them, while we’re here” and ‘Fuck the sister of Palestine’s cunt.’” There also have been chants directed against Jordan’s queen Rania, who is Palestinian, by Al Faisaly supporters calling for the king to divorce her. Back in July 2009, as Al Wihdat and Al Faisaly were about to meet in a Jordanian Shield Cup fixture, riots erupted in the city of Zarqa and anti-riot police had to step in to stop the violence. The chaos continued at the stadium, where players from both sides ultimately refused to play and walked off the pitch at half-time.
Violence between the two sides was so bad during the 1980’s that Al Wihdat were forced to change their name to “Al Daftain”—it translates to “the two banks club”—as a sign of “unity” between Jordanians and Palestinians. It didn’t last long; the name was changed back three years later. “The issue is more ethnic than political. And of course, the two things are intertwined,” said Luigi Achilli, who wrote a story about the club called “Fun, Football and Palestinian Nationalism.” “Indeed, you can say that political events and claims (Black September, Wadi Araba Treaty) have contributed to create an ethnic cleavage, often exploited by the regime, between allegedly local Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin, which in turn have played an important role in setting the supporters of the two teams apart.”
“In Palestine, everyone is on the lookout for every big or small detail concerning Al Wihdat in general and especially their football side,” Shadi Safi, a Palestinian sports journalist for the Al Quds newspaper, told me. “Al Wihdat is originally a Palestinian team. And despite the oppression and injustice, they are brilliant.” For Palestinians living under occupation, Al Wihdat’s success is both an inspiration and an aspiration.
“Palestinians saw the club as a window from which they can view the world around them, and that’s why they always provided full support,” says Ghassab Khaleel, an Al Wihdat board member and spokesman. “It was their sole source of joy and hope in the face of despair and agony.”
The Green Ultras finally reciprocated that immense support by becoming the first Jordanian side to cross the Israeli-controlled borderlines and play matches against Palestinian-based sides. “Jenin played guests to Al Wihdat a few years ago, after I spoke with one of their managers,” Jenin Sports Club manager Moussa Al Shar’aa recalled. “Our fans love Al Wihdat to death, as well as anybody who experienced the bitterness of being a refugee. [In Jordan] Al Wihdat took care of everything from dinner, meals, hotel reservations, and even for painkillers as well as the medical treatment of an injured player of ours. They didn’t allow us to pay for a single thing.”
Many of Al Wihdat’s members and players share Palestinian heritage, largely because of the team’s roots in a Palestinian refugee camp, and Al Wihdat have maintained close relationships with Palestinian clubs, hosting them for friendlies, training sessions, even supporting them on their continental adventures by paying for their travel to and hospitality in Jordan. Palestinian clubs like Al Am’ari even wear jerseys reminiscent of Al Wihdat’s.
“Al Am’ari and Al Wihdat are two sides of the same coin,” said Firas Arouri, a spokesperson for Al Am’ari. “They are both refugee camps and have both gone through the same hurdles, even though they are situated in different locations. Al Wihdat’s colors are always donned by our faithful and you can regularly hear chants supportive of Al Wihdat whenever Al Am’ari scores.”
Al Wihdat’s devotion to its Palestinian fanbase can also be seen through their participation in Palestine-based competitions such as the Al Areeha Winter Championship and Al Nakba Championship, where they’ve forged partnerships both on a club and supporter level with Palestinian clubs such as Al Ahli Gaza, Al Am’ari and Al Dhahiriyah. In 2014, the club organized a fundraiser in support of Palestinians cornered in Gaza during the seven week-long Israeli incursion into the blockaded territory, which left over two thousand Palestinians dead and many thousands homeless after the destruction of 18,000 homes in whole or part, and attacks on schools, universities, hospitals, and Gaza’s sole power plant.
“We know that Al Wihdat is based in Jordan and we’re proud of that,” says Fahed Attal, a former Al Wihdat player and Palestinian international. “But because it’s a beacon among the many camps and the extraordinary situation of its location and founding, we as Palestinians consider the club as the story of our homeland. Any player dreams of playing for the club, especially if that person is Palestinian. It was a personal wish of mine to represent Al Wihdat and I’m very proud that I managed to do so.”
“During the AFC Cup, Al Wihdat played in Gaza, in 2000 against my side back then, Ittihad Al Shejaiya,” recalls Sa’eb Jendeyah, another former Palestinian international and current manager of Palestinian side Beit Lahia. “We won the first leg but lost the second. The crowd was just brilliant throughout—[there is] a very special relationship. They were supporting Palestine’s national team in full force during their run in the 1999 Arab Cup, where we managed to win the bronze medal.”
“Our fans even chant for them during our matches,” said Ala’a Al Zaa’tari, current manager of Palestinian side Wadi Fukin. “On one stand, you can hear the supporters chanting, ‘They say Allah is Wihdat.’ On the other stand, you can hear supporters hollering, ‘Jerusalem is Arabian, Wihdatiyah, Wihdatiyah, Wihdatiyah, the champions of Jordan and the West Bank.’”
This support for Al Wihdat also extends, to some extent, to the 1948 Palestinians that live within Israel’s borders, descendants of those who refused to leave or managed to return to their villages after 1948. “These are the Palestinians who, for various reasons, were not expelled during the war. It is not that Ben Gurion refused to expel, it is that in the war circumstances they managed to stay,” said Nadim Rouhana, the Founder and General Director of Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa. “They became citizens because Israel had to abide by UN conditions of ‘treating them equally’ in order to get international recognition.”
The sports journalists Ahmed Awesat and Mahmoud Galia report that the 1948 Palestinian support and relationship with Al Wihdat isn’t as feverish as it is on the other side of the border; the team’s games aren’t televised, and so are followed most often through the internet and Facebook. “We sympathize with any Palestinian side and who are in solidarity with us like the Palestinian team in Chile (CD Palestino), who plays with the Palestinian flag on their uniform,” said Mahmoud Galia, a sports editor for a 1948 Palestinian website Bokra and a former reporter for the daily Hebrew-language newspaper, Maariv. “And we also show the same for Al Wihdat. But because of its moderate successes and the weakness of the Jordanian league, I don’t see much support from Palestinians here.”
“We 1948 Arabs love the underdogs and the marginalized who don’t have a mother or father like us,” said Morad Abu Taiah, a coach that works for Akha Nazareth. “We suffer discrimination on a regular basis, even in sports with clear differences in budgeting and infrastructure between Arab and non-Arab sides, and we are just sick of it. I actually used to support Al Faisaly, but when I became aware of what Al Wihdat is and their Palestinian roots and identity, I switched allegiances. The matches between the two are followed and watched here, and the majority root for Al Wihdat.”
One match stands above the rest when it comes to Palestinian soccer—the historic clash between the Green Ultras and Maccabi Kafr Kanna, once one of the best of the 1948 Palestinian clubs, back in 1996. The fact that the match happened at all was remarkable, according to the son of Kafr Kanna’s former president Faisal Al Khatib, who is now the head of the club’s supporters group, Mubarak. “After the efforts to hold the match against Al Wihdat went astray, because of fixtures and failure to find a proper location for such a match, we later discovered that the main reason was the fact Kafr Kanna had Jewish-Israeli players on its squad,” said Mubarak. “Al Wihdat interpreted it as an attempt of political normalization between Israeli and Jordanian sport, and they refused to be the first among Jordanian sides to accept this.”
That “anti-normalization” move by Al Wihdat threatened to derail the game, but Faisal Al Khatib refused to submit and Al Wihdat ultimately reconsidered its position. The match was finally held at the club’s sports hall, which ended in Al Khatib’s side’s favor, 3-2. “I remember that [Al Wihdat versus Maccabi Kafr Kanna] match very well,” said the Palestinian sports journalist Ahmad Al Buhairi. “I was a producer and presenter of a sports show for Al Balad radio at the time. I remember the coverage from the Arab and Hebrew media, and the immense love, as well as the endearment towards the club’s players from us 1948 Arabs. This game of course helped the kids and young adults become more familiar with Al Wihdat, which increased their love towards the club.”
Kafr Kanna were later invited to dinner at a restaurant called Kan Zaman, where the two teams proceeded to trade memorabilia, pleasantries, shields, and assurance of future visits; Al Wihdat president Bahgat Shehab and even Prince Faisal Al Hussein were in attendance at the postgame summit, which still remains the only encounter between Al Wihdat and a 1948 Palestinian club. According to Deeb Nasser, a fan and head of a supporters group very close with Akha Nazareth a match between the Green Ultras and Akha Nazareth came close, but “never materialized because of the Israeli citizenship our Palestinian players hold, as well as our supporters. Unfortunately, there isn’t complete awareness of the existence of a Palestinian minority within Israeli-annexed land from 1948.” Ahmad Al Buhairi, a broadcaster for the well-known 1948 Palestinian broadcast Al Shams Radio, remarked that teams like Hapoel Wahib Al Tiba have also tried to put together friendlies with Al Wihdat that never came to fruition. As of now, that Al Wihdat/Maccabi Kafr Kanna game is the only one played between Palestinians based within and without of the 1948 borders.
“Every football fan from administrators to players and supporters of 1948 Arab sides are aware of that game and talk it up as the historic match,” said Ahmed “Abu Wajdi” Jameel, who coaches Hilal Umm Fahm. “Al Wihdat’s reputation and the love shown for the club before and after the match exemplifies what they mean to us, in the minds and souls of every 1948 Arab athlete. The name alone and its location inside the Al Wihdat refugee camp is enough for the club to maintain a presence in the conscience.”
Abnaa Sakhnin is the only 1948 Palestinian club ever to win a domestic title, which they claimed when they won the Israel Cup in 2005. Because of their steadfast support for the Palestinian cause, they have been the target of animosity of other Israeli clubs and their supporters, most notably the infamously racist Beitar Jerusalem, a club that has never signed an Arab Palestinian player. “I personally have been an Al Wihdat supporter since my youthful days because we have the same roots. Both Sakhnin and Al Wihdat uphold the same message and identity,” said Abnaa Sakhnin keeper Mahmoud Qandeel. “Both sets of supporters relish a victory to feel a sense of independence. They’re more than just football clubs. I have never spoken to Abnaa Sakhnin supporters about Al Wihdat, but I have no doubt that they are Al Wihdat supporters.”
It took over a decade, but Al Wihdat finally played against a 1948 Palestinian side—not against a club, but an all-star team of the best 1948 Palestinian players led by the well-respected manager Samir Issa. That match was held in Amman at Al Wihdat’s King Abdullah Stadium on June 29, 2009, and honored the memory of the late Azmi Nassar, the revered former Palestine national team manager. Some 1,500 supporters turned out in the city of Zarqa, some of which were 1948 Palestinian families who travelled from their homes to watch the match live. Others were 1948 Palestinian students studying in Jordan.
It was close, but the match ended in a 2-1 victory for the Green Ultras. According to a 1948 Palestinian website, Al Arab, Al Wihdat supporters stood up and cheered the all-star team for more than 10 minutes; the team was later invited by Al Wihdat to a dinner at Reem Al Bawadi in Amman. “The result doesn’t matter in these sort of meetings,” said Ahmed Abbas, a former goalkeeper and current manager, who has played for numerous clubs in both Israel and Palestine like Maccabi Tamra and Al Ahli Khalil. “We felt we were amongst our family, our people.”
“It was of great pleasure to meet my brethren. I felt that I was at my home and amongst my family,” Issa said. “The atmosphere was quite good, but it gave us a feeling that we’re unwanted. Let those who judge us know that we are the sons of historic Palestine and no one has a monopoly on the Palestinian identity. Our grandfathers lived and resided on this land and we are their descendants.”
Samir Issa’s concern and apprehension are easy to understand. As Palestinians who live, breathe, and carry citizenship in the country that has displaced and expelled many of his compatriots, Issa and other 1948 Palestinians have a foot in two worlds. But his stance and steadfast pride in his Palestinian identity are also what Al Wihdat is all about, and what binds supporters to a team unlike many on earth—a club created by Palestinians, proud of being Palestinian, and unabashed in keeping their cause and identity alive and robust in the face of relentless adversity.