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Malachy Clerkin: We know all the reasons for Ireland to play Israel at basketball. We also know it should not happen

The horror stories coming from Gaza make it impossible to engage in sporting relations with a country whose response to the Hamas attacks has been so disproportionate

We know it’s unreasonable to expect the Ireland women’s basketball team to boycott their match against Israel next week. We know that doing so would cost Basketball Ireland thousands of euro in fines and anything up to a five-year ban from international competition. We know they didn’t choose to be in this position, and that there’s no simple way out of it. We know they’re in an impossible situation.

But we also know that over 9,000 children have died in Gaza since October.

We know it’s unreasonable to expect Robbie Keane to resign from his job at Maccabi Tel Aviv. We know that it’s very easy to tell other people what to do when it comes to taking a stand. We know that even though Keane is a wealthy man with a secure future, everyone has the right to make their own way in the game however they see fit.

But we also know that Gaza is on the brink of famine and that people are taking to eating grass to stave off the hunger.


We know it’s unreasonable to declare that Israel should be banned from this summer’s Olympics in Paris. We know that telling an Israeli gymnast or judoka or sprinter that all their training has been for nothing would be unjust in the extreme. We know that laying the crimes of a vengeful government on the shoulders of a workaday sportsperson is cruel.

But we also know that women are using strips of tents as tampons in Gaza.

We know that telling sportspeople they shouldn’t be playing against Israel is a low-stakes game for us and a high-stakes game for them. We know that the players give up so much more by refusing to play than we do by giving them grief. We know that whether or not a sporting event goes ahead, we will get on with our lives and detain ourselves with the things that are important to us. We know the sport is the important thing to the sportsperson.

But we also know that 85 per cent of people in Gaza have been displaced by the war.

We know that sporting boycotts are of limited use anyway. We know that Binyamin Natanyahu isn’t going to call the IDF home because this match didn’t go ahead or that athlete couldn’t compete. We know that whatever anyone in sport does in this realm is dot on a dot on a dot, the smallest gesture imaginable. We know that most likely absolutely nothing will change.

But we also know that 21 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are now beyond use and the remaining 15 are only partially functional.

We know that sport is all too easy a target. We know that it is seen as disposable and not worth a second thought. We know that if you wanted to go to the cinema tonight in any Israeli city you could check out Mean Girls and Poor Things and Trolls and all the same movies you’d see everywhere else, yet nobody is talking about boycotting Hollywood or about the movie industry legitimising the war. We know that sport is always first against the wall in these circumstances.

But we also know that around 17,000 kids have been separated from their families in Gaza over the winter.

We know that there will be no leadership here from the major sporting bodies. We know that Fifa is running a mile and that the IOC does not want to get involved. We know that anything that is likely to scare the horses in America – home of the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics, remember – is just not the sort of thing the likes of Gianni Infantino or Thomas Bach have any notion of wading into. We know that asking individual sportspeople or teams to step up when the people in actual power are in hiding is deeply unfair.

But we also know that at least half of all buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed by the Israeli army in the past four months.

We know that sportspeople don’t generally follow the granular ins and outs of the long, desperate history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. We know that they shouldn’t be expected to. We know that they have enough to be getting on with trying to excel at the thing they’re best at, trying to do justice to the people who have coached them and helped them along the way. We know that this wasn’t covered in any training session.

But we also know that over 700,000 people living in shelters in Gaza are suffering from contagious illness, including diarrhoea, jaundice and skin diseases.

And above all else we know what we don’t know. We don’t know what it’s like to be cut off from the world, to live under a blockade, to have our homes and schools and hospitals pummelled night and day. We don’t know what it’s like to have society break down completely, to know catastrophe as a way of life, to be abandoned and left destitute while the planet gets on with playing its games amongst itself.

We don’t know what any of that feels like. We have that luxury. We can afford to be more generous with it.

We should not be playing basketball against Israel right now.