The West Bank town of WADI AL-NIS is a popular tourist destination. The bleachers were almost completely empty, the coach was nowhere to be found, and the players were dejected after suffering yet another lopsided defeat in the process.
There was a sense of foreboding over the soccer field, which was located just outside the city of Jerusalem, as the Taraji Wadi al-Nis soccer team played in the penultimate game of its worst season in decades.
In addition to the fact that their storied, semiprofessional soccer club — the pride of a tiny, pastoral village of just 1,400 residents who are almost all from one extended family, would be downgraded to the shameful second division next season — the players’ visible frustration had much to do with the knowledge that their storied, semiprofessional soccer club would be downgraded to the shame of the second division.
It was just one more example — albeit a particularly painful one — of how the coronavirus has exacerbated the already difficult circumstances in the village of Wadi al-Nis in the occupied West Bank, where many people suffer from poverty and insecurity of work.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in the village last year, low-income families have reduced their meat consumption, labourers who work in Israel and nearby Israeli settlements have been unable to get to their places of employment, and some of those who have fallen ill have racked up substantial medical bills as a result of their illness.
Abdullah Abu Hamad, 46, a member of the local council and president of the soccer team, said as he stood on a rocky ridge overlooking the village’s rocky landscape, “The coronavirus has been devastating for our town.” All of our lives have been upended, from the construction workers to the farmers to the athletes.”
Despite the difficult living conditions experienced by many in Wadi al-Nis even prior to the outbreak, one bright spot that had long distinguished it from other similarly struggling villages in the occupied territories was the outsized success of its soccer team, which had long been regarded as a West Bank powerhouse.
But the coronavirus has taken that, too.
According to Susan Shalabi, a senior official with the Palestine Football Association, the financial crisis brought on by the virus has resulted in a reduction in sponsorship opportunities for many Palestinian clubs. For the team in Wadi al-Nis, whose small fan base meant that money was always at a premium, the loss of approximately $200,000 in government and private sector sponsorships was financially devastating to the organisation.
The players no longer practise on rented fields in neighbouring towns, but instead run for hours on dirt paths next to grape vineyards and olive orchards, where they can get a better feel for the game.
While the team’s struggles have dampened the spirits of almost everyone in the village, the village’s poorest residents have concerns that extend far beyond the field of play.
When Haijar Abu Hamad, a widow, needs help with basic expenses like food, water, and electricity bills, she usually turns to family and friends for help. However, since the outbreak of the virus, only a few people have been able to continue supporting her.
“Some days, all I eat for dinner is a piece of bread,” she admitted, barely concealing her displeasure with her words. The feeling of opening the fridge and discovering that there is little food inside is terrible.
Ms. Abu Hamad — the family name of almost everyone in the village is Abu Hamad — is the mother of two children and the grandmother of four grandchildren who were all born deaf as babies. A hearing aid for one of her grandchildren was broken, and she said the family could not afford to have it repaired.
While soccer has long been the town’s primary source of entertainment, jobs in Israel and neighbouring settlements have long been the town’s primary economic engine.
During the first few weeks of the outbreak, however, Palestinian workers were subjected to additional restrictions when crossing into Israeli territory. Those over the age of 50 were generally barred from entering at all, and some labourers in settlements were unable to get to their places of employment.
It was a devastating time, said Ghaleb Abu Hamad, 39, who works as a tractor driver in a nearby settlement and has played defender for the village’s soccer team for many years. “It was a devastating time,” he said. “In contrast to Israelis who were provided with unemployment benefits, we were left to fend for ourselves.”
Nonetheless, the employment situation has slightly improved. Villagers who work in Israel and neighbouring settlements have reported that they have recently been able to get to their places of employment on a regular basis, in part as a result of vaccines they received from Israeli authorities.
Soccer success in the West Bank has been associated with the name Wadi al-Nis, which literally translates as “Valley of the Porcupine.” According to Ghassan Jaradat, a media representative for the Palestine Football Association, the team has competed in the most prestigious league in the territory for the majority of its existence. In 2009 and 2014, the team won the top division championship.
There is another way in which Wadi al-Nis distinguishes itself from many other villages in the West Bank, aside from its history of soccer triumphs: it has developed strong ties with the neighbouring settlements.
A large number of residents work in the settlements in jobs such as construction, manufacturing, farming, and sanitation. They frequently get together with their Jewish neighbours for holiday meals.
The village council member Abdullah Abu Hamad stated that “we deal with our neighbours with good manners, mutual respect, and morals.” “We have a good working relationship with them.”
Mayor of the nearby Efrat settlement, Oded Revivi, 52, agreed that the two communities were close, calling the cooperation between them “endless,” whether it was reuniting a lost dog or collaborating on a project. Residents of Wadi al-Nis make use of the emergency medical centre in Efrat, according to him.
However, like many other West Bank villages, the political future of Wadi al-Nis is intertwined with one of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Also lacking is fundamental infrastructure, such as properly paved roads, public parks, sewerage, and well-lit streets and sidewalks. At any given time during the day, public transportation is infrequently available, and there is only one store in the heart of town.
Local leaders have been attempting to persuade the Palestinian Authority and international donors to invest in the development of the area for years, but they have made little progress in their efforts.
In a statement, the Wadi al-Nis Charitable Society, which provides services to the village, stated that it had previously encountered difficulties in raising funds, but that the virus had exacerbated those difficulties even further.
“We basically got nothing this year,” said Walid Abu Hamad, the society’s director, who is 46 years old. “The virus has plunged us into our most serious crisis in history.”
The organization’s kindergarten has experienced difficulties in procuring necessary school supplies such as pens and paper, among other things. Its financial assistance to the poor has been significantly reduced. Long-standing plans for a state-of-the-art community centre appear to be further away than they have ever been.
When it comes to soccer, however, the villagers are confident that the club will rise again — at some point in the future.
Ahmad Abu Hamad, a 33-year-old veteran defender, expressed confidence that the team would recover in the coming years. However, he acknowledged that the team’s failure this past season had added to the misery of a difficult period in his hometown. “It’s been a long time,” he said.
“We were dubbed the kings of the championships,” says the team. As he sat next to four relatives who are also members of the club, he shared his memories of winning cup after cup after cup. “We would celebrate them in the centre of town, just like we do during weddings,” he recalled. It is now completely silent and silent on the streets, and the sense of despondency is palpable.”