By GEOFF LEE*
There is a unique situation in the Middle East: in that one country, Israel, is deliberately hindering another – Palestine – from playing football, and exhibits racism and discrimination against Palestinians within its own jurisdiction.
Due to this, Palestinians are demanding action which is perhaps slightly belated, but nonetheless, as urgent as ever. On 20 March 2015, the Palestinian Football Federation (PFA) submitted a motion for debate at the upcoming 28-29 May FIFA annual congress in Zurich. The motion calls for the suspension of the Israeli Football Federation (IFA) from FIFA until the following conditions are satisfied:
- Football participants and all equipment related to the sport are able to move freely in, out and within Palestine.
- Football facilities are to be built and maintained in Palestine without hindrance.
- Football clubs established within illegal settlements in the West Bank are to be banned from playing in IFA competitions
- IFA is to take firm action in order to eliminate racist and apartheid practices within its own leagues.
- IFA is to recognise the PFA as the sole governing body for football within Palestine.
These conditions address longstanding grievances. PFA has supported initiatives by FIFA for nearly two years, but regrettably – though not unexpectedly, these came to naught. For this reason, it argues, strong pressure in the form of suspension of IFA is needed to bring about essential change.
Israeli repression of football in Palestine
IFA is effectively a state institution that is supported financially by the government and controlled by the State Comptroller. It cannot escape its complicity in its government’s actions and so breaches FIFA’s Statute 3, which prohibits racist actions punishable by suspension or expulsion. FIFA has challenged this complicity, but a 2009 declaration in the Knesset clarified that the IFA was a “public institution…supported [by the State] “.
Israel’s assault on footballers
Footballers have suffered tremendously in Palestine. During Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, 16 footballers and coaches – and 13 other sportspersons – were killed. Three more, Saji Darwish, Oda’i Nafez Jabr and Mohammad al-Qatri, were shot dead in the West Bank. Al-Qatri was apparently executed after his arrest. In January of 2014, two footballers and family members, 19-year-old Johar Nasr Halabiyeh and 17-year-old Adam Halabiyeh were walking beside Israel’s Apartheid Wall and were shot repeatedly by Israeli soldiers. Their injuries left them both permanently disabled.
Restriction of movement of footballers
Israel also systematically restricts the freedom of movement of all Palestinian athletes, including footballers. The use of road blocks to control Palestinian movement often means that away games can take two days and cause worry for players’ families, even though the game could be in a neighbouring town or village. Athletes, staff and officials are also routinely denied permission to travel internationally, as well as between the West Bank and Gaza. Matches have had to be cancelled and foreign visitors have been humiliated at borders.
Arrest, imprisonment and torture of footballers
Many athletes and footballers in particular have been targeted because of their participation in sports. For example, in July 2009, leading national team member, Mahmoud Sarsak, was arrested without charge, imprisoned for three years and tortured while in prison. He was only released after worldwide pressure was imposed by FIFA and UEFA. In April 2014, Sameh Maraabeh was arrested and imprisoned without charge for eight months then denied permission to travel to the 2015 Asian Games in Australia.
Damage and destruction inflicted on facilities
Football has suffered tremendously due to Israel’s restrictions on the development and maintenance of football facilities in Palestinian territories. For example, uncountable football pitches and buildings were either severely damaged or totally destroyed in Israel’s wars in 2008/9 and 2012 on the Gaza Strip. In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, the pitches and buildings of 30 Gazan football clubs were damaged or destroyed, but the rebuilding of facilities in the West Bank has been extremely difficult. Since many of these facilities are in Areas B and C (80 percent of the West Bank) Israel has the power to prevent development for what they deem “security reasons” while FIFA officials have been prevented from constructing new facilities as part of FIFA’s Goal Project. Additionally, the importing of new equipment to both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been blocked and massive taxes have been imposed.
Israeli repression of football for Palestinian citizens of Israel
According to FIFA’s own statutes on racism, IFA should immediately be suspended for its discrimination against Palestinian athletes who are Israeli citizens. For instance, Israel has singularly failed to eliminate overt racism at the Beitar club that has branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. The blatant racism imposed at Beitar Club has been highlighted to FIFA and UEFA by The Mossawa Centre and the Coalition Against Racism. IFA has never been disciplined for the club’s failure to employ any Arabs, and the management that signed two Chechen Muslims was ousted, as were the players – after destructive demonstrations by fans. In November of 2014, during a football match, Beitar fans chanted “Death to Arabs.” This kind of chanting has been an issue in the past and continues.
IFA recently segregated Palestinian youth teams from Jewish youth teams by splitting a national children’s league in the al-Shomoron area, in clear breach of FIFA’s statute (No 3) on racism. Reports say that this action was taken following the request of parents of Jewish child participants. The rights group, Adalah (the Legal Centre for Arab Minorities in Israel) has taken IFA to the district court and a decision is yet to be determined.
Israel has failed to stop the alarming growth of racism against Arab minorities in Israeli football. The Coalition Against Racism in Israel’s 2013 report stated that incidents in the premier league were rising steeply and that despite various initiatives in this field, it appears that so long as enforcement measures are not announced, including penalties, this trend will not show any significant decline.
Why play against an Israeli team?
Israeli breaches of football’s codes of behaviour are indicative of the extreme and worsening racism within Israeli society and the apartheid system imposed by the Israeli government. The whole world knows of the Gaza massacre and many will have noted how little has been achieved in rebuilding the infrastructure and dwellings destroyed in the 2014 onslaught. However, most people in the world do not know of the ongoing, month by month repressive acts throughout the West Bank – nor of the ongoing repression of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who comprise 20 percent of the population. Israel ignores international law and does not respect the human rights of Palestinians.
While FIFA and UEFA often argue that politics and sport don’t mix, FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter has publically recognised that sport has a political dimension. For Israelis, sport is a profoundly political issue and it is desperate to be accepted as a country like any other. Thus it seizes upon every opportunity to emphasise its close partnership with Europe and has hosted UEFA matches, even in Jerusalem, which it has illegally annexed and wishes to promote as its “undivided capital”.
Uniting against racism in football
FIFA suspended the South African Football Association in 1964 and only re-admitted it in 1992 once apartheid had been rejected in civil and sporting society. Several prominent South African leaders who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, including Archbishop Tutu, have stated that Israeli apartheid is far worse than South African Apartheid and that Israel is guilty of far more serious crimes against humanity.
The president of the Asian Football Confederation, Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, declared his commitment to tackling the “illegal Israeli practices” hindering Palestinian soccer.
The UK’s Red Card Israeli Racism campaign has worked for the rights of Palestinian footballers for about four years. Also active have been EuroPalestine (France), BDS France, BDS Italia, and groups in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Irish Republic, Luxembourg, Northern Ireland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere.
Considering Israel’s failure to abide by the rules of FIFA, IFA must be suspended until Israel learns to respect human rights of Palestinians and observes international law.
* Geoff Lee is a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and joint founder of the Red Card Israeli Racism campaign in 2011. He has visited the West Bank and Israel twice recently to gain an overall impression of the Occupation and meet with football players, coaches and officials and look at football facilities.