FC Barcelona Extends Invitations to Israeli and Palestinians, Gets Tangled in Regional Conflict

FC Barcelona Extends Invitations to Israeli and Palestinians, Gets Tangled in Regional ConflictGeopolitics are casting a shadow over one of the world soccer's biggest games.

FC Barcelona will play Real Madrid on Oct. 7 with the Israel-Palestine conflict forming part of the backdrop.

Barcelona's decision to invite Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier and sports columnist, to attend the game has placed the club at the center of a diplomatic dispute.

Schalit was held captive by Hamas, the Palestinian group controlling the Gaza Strip, from 2006-11. He was freed last October and has since become a sports scribe. Shalit requested a ticket to Oct. 7 game, and Barcelona not only complied with the request, it invited him to attend the game in a suite at the Camp Nou stadium.

On Thursday, Hamas launched a media boycott of the club to protest Schalit's invitation. Hamas said no television stations in the Gaza strip would broadcast Barcelona games, and no newspapers would write about the club either.

The next day, the Palestinian embassy requested three tickets to the game — one for the Palestinian Authority ambassador to Spain, one for Palestinian Football Union president Jibril Rajoub and the last for soccer player Mahmoud Al Sarsak, who spent three years in an Israeli prison without being charged.

The two Palestinian officials accepted Barcelona's invitation, but Al Sarsak, who was released in July following a hunger strike, has followed Hamas's lead and rejected the invitation, according to Al Jazeera.

"Sarsak's rejection of the invitation comes a day after he said he would attend next month's derby but not in the same stand as Shalit," the report said. "The footballer told the AFP news agency on Friday that the invitation to attend the clash of the Spanish giants was dear to his heart and that of the Palestinian people, but he would not attend if he had to share it with Shalit.

"'This invitation is very important for me and for the Palestinian people but I will not be able to accept it unless the Palestinian Authority gives me authorisation,' Sarsak said.

"Sharing a box with Shalit on October 7 would be tantamount to a 'normalisation' with Israel, he said. 'Sports and politics mix here.'"

The game kicks off in less than a week, and the parties must decide what they want to do with this moment. If Al Sarsak shares a box with Shalit, it could serve as a powerful example of sports' ability to unify and help heal divisions of the past, present and future. 

If he declines, one soccer man will miss the opportunity of a lifetime (to attend the Clasico courtesy of FC Barcelona) in order to uphold the existing order. People on both sides will remain distant from each other, and the conflict will continue as is. 

Barcelona has withstood the criticism and taken symbolic steps toward a brighter future. Now, it's Hamas' and Al Sarsak's turn.

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