Football: the case of Palestine

Summary: a FIFA meeting next week likely to consider the Palestine proposal for expulsion of Israel. Hardly likely to be approved, but football will reach a wider audience than human rights abuses, breaches of international law etc which excite only policy wonks.

In our posting of 6 May we referred to the attempt by the Palestine Football Association to have Israel suspended from international football. The president of FIFA Sepp Blatter has visited Jerusalem and Ramallah to try to get the bid dropped from the agenda of a meeting of FIFA in Zurich on 29 May, as happened in 2013 and 2014. This time he seems to have been unsuccessful. According to Reuters Israel offered some concessions on travel curbs, but two issues were not addressed: “One is the charge of racism in Israeli football, with one team, Beitar Jerusalem, refusing to employ Arab players. Another is the fact that five Israeli clubs are based in settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law… FIFA rules clearly state that teams must be based in a country’s territory.”

Blatter’s proposal for a “match for peace” between Israel and Palestine, which Benjamin Netanyahu said he would be willing to attend, seems unlikely to be agreed or to improve the situation if it is agreed. On 21 May, the day after Blatter left, the president of the Palestine Football Association Jibril Rajub (a former Palestinian security chief and member of Fatah Central committee) wrote to Blatter complaining that the Palestine national team leaving for a training camp in Tunisia had been delayed by the Israeli authorities and one player detained, confirming that promises given by the Israeli government were only words.

Suspension, if it remains on the agenda, would require a three-quarters majority of FIFA’s 209 members to pass. That seems unlikely, although given a secret ballot and alleged levels of corruption throughout FIFA anything is possible. But unless it is defeated by a crushing majority it is likely to remain on the international agenda, moving Palestine from international news to the sports pages and resulting in much wider interest in the question and a boost for the BDS movement.

James Dorsey writing for Al Jazeera America quotes Gershom Baskin in the Jerusalem Post “Whether or not the Palestinians win the vote is only secondary to the realization that this is just the beginning of the Palestinians’ diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Israel. The issue is not football or the freedom of movement of soccer players. The issue is much larger and will continue to emerge on the international stage on which Israel is now being targeted. The issue is of course the continuation of the occupation and Israel’s refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in an independent state of their own next to Israel.”

The article below on the Sky News website was written while Blatter was still in Israel.

Israel Fighting To Stay In World Football
Sepp Blatter meets Israel’s PM over attempts by the Palestinian FA to remove Israel from FIFA because of alleged violations.
Tuesday 19 May 2015
By Tom Rayner, Middle East Reporter, Jerusalem

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has held crisis talks in Jerusalem aimed at averting a Palestinian bid to have Israel suspended from international football.

The Palestinian Football Association is preparing to push a motion calling for Israel’s suspension at the FIFA annual congress later this month.

Mr Blatter emerged “very hopeful” from talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He said he would take “a message” from Mr Netanyahu to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday – though he would not disclose details.

Mr Blatter did reveal that Mr Netanyahu had agreed to a “match of peace” between the national teams of Israel and Palestine, though no date has yet been put forward.

Last week FIFA issued a statement on behalf of Mr Blatter stating “any member association that is fulfilling its statutory duties should not be suspended. This would apply to the Israeli Football Association as long as they fulfil such duties”.

But the head of the Palestinian FA, Jibril Rajoub, has outlined a number of complaints which he says demonstrate violations of FIFA’s standards and ethics.

Mr Rajoub, a former security chief for the Palestinian Authority, says players and officials face unwarranted travel restrictions between Gaza and the West Bank, and international opponents are often blocked from entry into the Occupied Palestinian Territories without sufficient explanation.

He has also condemned the inclusion of teams from Israeli settlements located in the West Bank in Israeli football’s lower leagues.

“I don’t want to cause suffering, even to the Israeli footballers, but as long as their federation is defending, instead of fighting against the racism and restricting the Palestinian footballers’ movements, they are part of the occupation,” Mr Rajoub told Sky News.

“We are asking for free movement, no racism and to respect our jurisdiction within our territories,” he added.

The Palestinian FA insists the aim of this move is to remove the political aspects from football, but Israel dismisses such assertions, claiming the complaints contain “distortions” and are an attempt to politicise sport.

“We will not allow for Israel to be presented as a country which violated the agreements which it signed, and we will do all in our power to prevent any kind of ban,” said the chairman of the Israeli Football Association, Ofer Eini, in comments to the Jerusalem Post.

“I certainly expect the FIFA president to speak out loud and clear on this matter and to prevent this malicious move,” he added.

Israel’s new sports minister, Miri Regev, described the Palestinian bid as “shameful”, and expressed her confidence that Mr Blatter would remove the motion from the agenda.

If presented to the FIFA congress, the motion would require a three-quarters majority of FIFA’s 209 members to pass.

Israel has been a member of UEFA since 1994, and is currently competing in the group stages for qualification to the European Championships.

The Palestinian national team competes in the Asian Football Confederation, and qualified for the Asia Cup for the first time earlier this year.

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