Al Khader, West Bank. In the West Bank, where football reigns supreme, the sight of Palestinian players kicking and tossing an oval ball draws incredulous stares and bemused comments.
“What game are they playing?” asked a spectator at the Al-Khader football stadium, where the Beit Jala Lions team practices. Another onlooker, a football pundit, suggested the odd game might be American football.
The Beit Jala Lions, who call themselves the first Palestinian rugby team in history, are making do with improvised gear and a modest number of players, but all club members hope the game will eventually catch on in the occupied West Bank.
Their only audience at a recent practice was a bemused football team waiting for its turn on the pitch and, further away, a few rifle-toting Israeli soldiers looking on from a nearby watchtower.
On the synthetic lawn of the stadium, wedged against Israel’s controversial separation barrier which cuts off the West Bank, the rugby players practiced an attack strategy. The passes were at times clumsy and the outfits didn’t match, but the players’ enthusiasm was evident.
The year-old team is the brainchild of anthropologist Martin Bisztrai, a former Hungarian national rugby player, who had traveled to the West Bank for his research.
“Martin had with him a strange, oval ball, never before seen in Palestine,” said Nicolas Fuad Stefan, the team’s 20-year-old coach.
“We started playing on the street, making passes for fun. We quickly got hooked,” he said.
“We are not yet pros, but we’re doing pretty well, I think,” said Apo Sahagian, 18, who was born in Armenia and today lives in the mostly Christian village of Beit Jala.
Although Christians count for only a small minority in the predominantly Muslim Palestinian society, around one half of the Beit Jala Lions are Christians.
George Maria said he hoped their modest undertaking would put the Palestinians on the world’s rugby map.
“One day, the Palestinian flag will appear here,” Maria said, pointing at a rugby ball covered with different national flags.