The martial art and combat sport of Muay Thai is gaining momentum among Palestinian Jerusalemites. Meet the two champions of the sport in the Palestinian Muay Thai Federation, Fadi Mustafa, 42, and Saleh Dirbas, 31, both from the neighborhood of al-‘Isawiyya in East Jerusalem.
Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story
One East Jerusalem Neighborhood Boasts Two Muay Thai Champions
Fadi has always been interested in sports. He first took up kickboxing and body building in the 1990s, and has shifted his focus in recent years to Muay Thai. He is now Palestine’s national team coach for Muay Thai.
And what is Muay Thai, you might be wondering? Muay Thai is a special martial art and combat sport that was developed over 100 years ago but is now becoming the fastest growing martial art. Muay Thai is specifically known as the most effective striking art, and has been refined across the years. It follows a simple format, and it is open to men, women, and children. Some people think it originated in Thailand, although it may have had other origins.
Fadi explains that this sport consists of efficient kicks and punches with knees, elbows, shins, and hands. Muay Thai uses the entire body as a weapon. The attacking techniques and variations include punches, kicks, teep [like the jab in boxing] pushes, and clinches with knee and elbow strikes.
The tale of Muay Thai itself, perhaps half steeped in myth, is one of victory over hardship, as it tells a story of a fighter of Siam (as Thailand used to be called) who defeated Burmese fighters during imprisonment and under siege in the 14th century.2
As a martial art, Fadi explains, “Muay Thai changes one’s personality: As kids learn it, they gain confidence and develop the boldness to speak up.” It is thus a good practice for children, who may begin the sport as early as age five or six.
In Thailand, Fadi explains, Muay Thai has become a real business; it is now somewhat commercialized and profit-inducing, as people from all over the world go there for training and accreditation. It was introduced to Palestine in 2010 and has gained momentum since. It is for enthusiasts, he explains, and is becoming quite popular.
Fadi has taught the combat sport and martial art in Ramallah, but he dedicates his efforts mostly in Jerusalem. Mastering the technique of Muay Thai, as Fadi sees it, requires patience, perseverance, and much discipline; the process increases self-confidence and builds resilience. Some of his students have made it to international events and gained worldwide recognition as serious competitors and champions of Muay Thai—and this makes him proud.
One of Fadi’s star students is Saleh Dirbas, who is now a trainer in schools and clubs in East Jerusalem. Saleh was selected to join the Palestinian Muay Thai Federation. He was among the top male elite players at the International Federation of Muaythai Associations in 2021, 2022, and 2023, where he played against serious competitors and achieved good records, including first place for Palestine to participate in the Muay Thai worldwide championship in Phuket, Thailand. He also competed in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Saleh, like Fadi, comes from al-‘Isawiyya, considered one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Living conditions are harsh. Since 1967, the Israeli military has seized over 90 percent of the neighborhood’s land and put military and police bases on it; hardly any land is left for construction. For over four years, al-‘Isawiyya has been under constant surveillance by Israeli special patrol units and border police, which, as some human rights organizations have noted, is all part of a violent operation that is essentially discriminatory and “a campaign of abuse and collective punishment.”3 Israeli measures there violate the many provisions in the Geneva Conventions that make up international humanitarian law and which specifically prohibit unfair trial and cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment.
Saleh has been arrested on several occasions by the Israeli forces. When he was 18, he was imprisoned for three consecutive years for resisting the Israeli military occupation. He had received threats and been taken to Israeli prisons with the order of being exiled from the Old City of Jerusalem. The order simultaneously caught him by surprise yet seemed predictable.
His brother, Muhammad, was also arrested, as were several members of his family. The Israeli forces often have incursions and nightly raids in the neighborhood.
Saleh is convinced that in times of trouble, one must create a shelter for oneself.
“Despite their violations and oppressive policies, as well as intentional negligence of East Jerusalem, this is our homeland,” Saleh told Jerusalem Story.4 He is committed to Jerusalem and is sure that the spirit of the Palestinians in Jerusalem cannot be broken. Muay Thai has helped him build resilience throughout these difficult circumstances and taught him patience during struggle. It builds confidence, promotes discipline, boosts inner strength, and helps develop the ability to control emotions and feelings. It also unleashes one’s potential, and much like other forms of martial arts, it humbles a person’s ego and inspires self-improvement.
Today, Saleh is a proud father and husband and teaches more than 60 students. He continues to draw inspiration and gain strength from this self-defense method that has been used in battlefields, conflicts, and wars throughout the history of Thailand.
Muay Thai for Palestinians in Jerusalem
Love of this combat sport and martial art has been uplifting for Palestinian Jerusalemites. Considering the restrictions they face, their participation in international competitions has created opportunities for them to connect with Palestinians from refugee camps and other Arab nationals from Libya, the UAE, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
“Healthy body, healthy mind,” Saleh reminds us of the saying. He has dedicated much time and effort to developing his skill in this martial art to qualify to compete—often in short periods of time. In so doing, he inspires various children living under harsh conditions in Jerusalem to keep their heads up high, their patience strong, and their mental, spiritual, and physical abilities in check.
Jerusalem Story interview with Fadi Mustafa, September 2023.
“This Is Jerusalem: Violence and Dispossession in al-‘Esawiyah,” B’Tselem, May 2020.
Jerusalem Story interview with Saleh Dirbas, September 2023.