Will Israel be kicked out of FIFA for abusing Palestinian players?

A protest calling for Israel to be suspended from FIFA was held in Ramallah earlier today. 

Shadi Hatem APA images

The international football federation, FIFA, is set to vote tomorrow on a proposal to suspend Israel.

If the proposal receives a two-thirds majority, Israel will be dropped from FIFA and unable to participate in international matches, including the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

The vote has been requested by the Palestinian Football Association. It follows a major campaign highlighting Israel’s movement restrictions on Palestinian footballers, including a ban on their travel between the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“All we are requesting are basic rights for our athletes,” Jibril Rajoub, a politician who played a leading role in the campaign, recently told Al Jazeera America. “The Israeli occupation’s overt oppression and racist policies, including movement restrictions for athletes, prevent us from participating in the game to our full potential.”

Though it’s still unclear whether FIFA’s congress will rally up enough votes, Rajoub maintained that he is “optimistic” Israel will be dropped.

Red Card Israeli Racism, a UK-based group that campaigns for a boycott of Israeli football bodies, has been protesting outside the FIFA congress meeting in Zurich this week. “We’ve been writing letters to FIFA members, pointing out the arguments for Israel’s suspension,” Geoff Lee, a member of the campaign, told The Electronic Intifada.

“When an Israeli player goes home after a match, he can be confident that he will be safe. The Palestinian player, on the other hand, may go home to find a demolition order on his residence,” Lee commented, referring to Israel’s practice of razing Palestinian homes.

Players shot

FIFA President Sepp Blatter visited present-day Israel and the West Bank earlier this month. In a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, the Israeli prime minister told him that football should act as “a vehicle of goodwill between nations” rather than a political tool.

Netanyahu went on to praise Blatter for publicly opposing Israel’s suspension.

During a visit to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah the next day, Blatter proposed a “peace match” between the Israeli and Palestinian national football teams. Rajoub rejected the offer and insisted that the PFA will take the proposal to a vote.

Blatter also told Abbas and Rajoub that Israel had verbally agreed to lighten movement restrictions on footballers. Yet within hours of Blatter’s statement, Israeli occupation authorities detained Sameh Maraabeh, a player on the Palestinian national team, at an Israeli-controlled crossing between Jordan and the West Bank.  

Israel detained Maraabeh for three hours due to “security concerns” as he attempted to cross the King Hussein Bridge into Jordan from the Jericho area of the West Bank.

Palestinian footballers traveling abroad or across the West Bank are regularly subjected to Israeli interrogations at checkpoints and boundary crossings. In addition to movement restrictions, Israeli forces have targeted Palestinian footballers with live ammunition in the past.

In January 2014, as two teenaged football players made their way home from practice, they were shot with live ammunition in al-Ram, between Ramallah and occupied East Jerusalem.

Racist chants

Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Halabiya, 17, were both struck by bullets in their feet when “Israeli forces opened fire in their direction without warning as they were walking near a checkpoint,” Ma’an News Agency reported at the time.

The soldiers released trained dogs on the boys and then dragged them across the ground before eventually arresting them. “Medical reports said that Jawhar was shot with eleven bullets, seven in his left foot, three in his right, and one in his left hand,” according to the Ma’an report. “Halabiya was shot once in each foot.”

Doctors at the Ramallah hospital where they were treated told Ma’an that the boys would likely “never walk again” and would need to undergo several medical procedures.

Fans of several Israeli soccer teams — among them Beitar Jerusalem — are also known for their notoriously racist and Islamophobic chants against Palestinians and other non-Jewish players, and have often used violence against Palestinian players on Israeli football teams.

After Beitar Jerusalem signed two Muslim players from Chechnya in early 2013, arsonists torched the club’s offices. Beitar Jerusalem fans frequently chant “Death to Arabs” and “Muhammad is dead,” an insult to the prophet. 

In March 2012, hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans were caught on closed circuit television assaulting Palestinian cleaning staff in the Malha mall in East Jerusalem. The fans amassed in the shopping center chanting “Death to Arabs,” before attacking several Palestinian workers.

“Several supporters started harassing three Arab women, who sat in the food hall with their children. They verbally abused and spat on them,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported the following day. 

Pressure to drop vote

In response to the Palestinian call, Israel’s foreign ministry has launched a counter-campaign. The foreign ministry has visited more than a hundred countries across the globe to meet football associations and sports ministers, presenting “evidence” that allegedly implicates Palestinian athletes in armed activities against Israel.

“If FIFA sticks to its law, the [Israeli] diplomatic campaign will have no effect,” Geoff Lee remarked. “Blatter wants a concession from the Palestinians, to make them drop the vote.”

Lee noted that Israel has attempted to discredit Palestinian efforts to highlight Israeli discrimination.  “No one in Israel has really suggested that discriminatory laws be rescinded or that movement restrictions [on Palestinian athletes] be lightened,” he said. ”There has been almost no discussion about that so far.”

A number of Israeli and pro-Israel groups have also joined Israel’s drive to prevent the vote from taking place. The Israeli Football Association (IFA) has appealed to UEFA, the governing body for European football, to denounce the Palestinian campaign “loud and clear.”

“IFA is facing one of its most crucial situations since it was established in the year 1928, finding ourselves in the need to defend ourselves against a proposal which is totally political and has nothing to do with the objectives of FIFA and the spirit of football,” IFA president Ofer Eini wrote in a letter to UEFA president Michel Platini.

Despite attempting to support an apolitical view of football and other sports, the IFA has time and again failed to meaningfully punish Israeli football clubs and their supporters for hate speech and violence.  

“Murderous regime”

Shurat HaDin, an anti-Palestinian legal group based in Tel Aviv, has also chimed in. The group is petitioning FIFA to expel Jibril Rajoub for supposedly violating FIFA’s code of conduct by having “promoted, supervised and glorified” Palestinian armed activities against Israeli occupation forces and settlers.

“To say that such violent, hateful, discriminatory conduct is beneath the high ideals of FIFA for peace, sportsmanship and collegiality is to massively understate the obvious,” Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder and president of Shurat HaDin, claimed in a letter to FIFA.

Despite opposing alleged Palestinian efforts to “politicize” sports, Shurat HaDin is by no means impartial. As The Electronic Intifada’s Asa Winstanley reported in 2013, Shurat HaDin lawyers “privately admitted to a US embassy official it acted as a proxy for the Israeli government.”

In recent days, the likelihood of Israel’s suspension from FIFA has been overshadowed by the high-profile arrests of several FIFA officials on corruption charges. The US announced this week indictments for fourteen FIFA officials, who were arrested by Swiss authorities in Zurich on Wednesday morning.

Nonetheless, the Palestinian campaign has garnered widespread support. On 15 May, a group of nineteen public intellectuals published an open letter in The Guardian throwing their weight behind the campaign. They include American linguist Noam Chomsky, English novelist John Berger and Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta, among others.

The signatories cite FIFA’s thirty-year suspension of apartheid South Africa and two-year suspension of Yugoslavia as historical precedents for kicking Israel out.

In that letter, they berate the Israeli football establishment for having “stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s murderous regime while Palestinian footballers have been shot, beaten, bombed, and incarcerated along with their fellow citizens.”

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Comments

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Any explanation for this decision? Why would they drop the vote for suspension? Obviously something happened--I hope EI can post an update soon. Thanks.

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It's a small step towards correcting the injustice being carried out by Israel. Shooting people because they want to play football? When will it end?

Patrick Strickland

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor at The Electronic Intifada. He is presently working on his first book for the London-based publishing house Zed Books. See his in-depth coverage for EI.