Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images

Palestinian soccer players tell FIFA Israel violates their ‘basic rights’

Palestinian soccer body calls for Israel to be suspended from FIFA over ‘discrimination’ and ‘oppression’

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Nadeem Barghouthi, a 25-year-old who has played soccer since he was a child, says Palestinian athletes don’t have the opportunity to live like their counterparts elsewhere, because politics always manage to get in the way.

Barghouthi’s team, the Silwan Football Club in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, is no exception. In 2012, Israeli authorities temporarily shut down the club and claimed it had financial links to Hamas, the political organization that controls Gaza and enjoys wide support in the occupied West Bank. Barghouthi rejects the charge, saying Israel “considers all Palestinians terrorists.”

“We are just athletes like athletes anywhere else, not terrorists,” he said. 

When Barghouthi’s team wants to play in other parts of the West Bank, members are subjected to lengthy searches at Israeli military checkpoints. Their Israeli counterparts are not.

“Palestinian soccer players struggle to travel, and after a match, we always know that we could be harassed or arrested by Israeli soldiers when returning,” he said. “Israeli players, on the other hand, travel without problems and don’t face any restrictions. This is discrimination. It’s oppression.”

The situation has prompted the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), activists and politicians to campaign for FIFA — the international body that governs soccer — to suspend the Israeli Football Association (IFA) unless Israel lifts its restrictions on the movement of Palestinian athletes between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and on imports of sports equipment bound for the Palestinian territories. FIFA is set to vote on the matter at its congress in Zurich on May 29.

Aside from expulsion, suspension — which would bar Israeli teams from international competition — is the gravest punishment FIFA can impose on member countries. 

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, FIFA President Sepp Blatter met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Blatter that soccer should be a “vehicle of goodwill between nations,” not a political tool. The next day, Blatter met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, hoping to persuade the Palestinians to drop their suspension campaign and try to resolve the issue without taking their proposal to a FIFA congress vote. Blatter has also proposed a peace match between the Palestinian and Israeli national teams.

But Jibril Rajoub, the chairman of the PFA, says the campaigners have no intention to stop the push for suspension until their demands are met. “All we are requesting are basic rights for our athletes,” he told Al Jazeera. “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.”

“Our cause is just, and FIFA has had to discuss Israel before,” Rajoub said, adding that the IFA’s inclusion of Israeli football teams from illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank contravenes FIFA rules. In 2013 the PFA raised the travel issue in FIFA’s congress, prompting Blatter to call on Israel to ease the restrictions. In May 2014 Blatter visited Israel and the Palestinian territories and met with Netanyahu and Abbas, after Rajoub’s earlier calls for sanctions on Israel.

Asked if Israel has been in contact with the Palestinians about the campaign, Rajoub said Israel has “approached us only from a position of pressure and threats.”

He said he is optimistic that the FIFA congress will suspend Israel.

After a news conference with Blatter on Thursday, Rajoub said the suspension issue would remain on the table at the coming FIFA congress. “There will be no compromising on the free movement of our athletes and officials,” he said after talks with Blatter.

Earlier this month, as Rajoub led a FIFA tour delegation in the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli settlers accosted and verbally harassed the group. Israeli settler violence against local Palestinians has become routine in Hebron, where hundreds of Israelis live in settlements in the heart of the Palestinian Old City and enjoy military protection.

“The soldiers came and prevented us from walking in the Old City,” Rajoub said. “It was the clearest example of Israeli racism toward Palestinians. The settlers harassed us and said racist innuendos. We told them that we were leading a tour for FIFA, and they said it didn’t matter because the area was only for Jews.”

In response to the Palestinian FIFA push, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has launched a diplomatic campaign against suspension. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has been in contact with sports ministers and soccer clubs in more than a hundred countries, allegedly providing information that proves several Palestinian athletes have been involved in armed activity.

Israel’s new minister of culture and sports, Miri Regev, spoke out Sunday against the suspension campaign, saying “a separation must be made between sports and politics, as long as there is loyalty to the state and its laws.”

Red Card Israeli Racism, a U.K.-based campaign that calls for soccer leagues and teams to boycott Israel, plans to protest outside the coming FIFA conference in Zurich. “We think it’s absolutely vital that Israel is suspended from FIFA and then makes good on obligations before it is allowed back in,” said group member Geoff Lee.

“The football establishment should uphold the highest values of anti-racism,” he said. He argued that Israel ought to be shunned “until it respects the human rights of all Palestinians and complies with international law.”

A group of 19 public intellectuals, including American linguist Noam Chomsky and English novelist John Berger, published an open letter on May 15 in The Guardian calling on FIFA to respect the Palestinian call for the IFA to be suspended. The signatories pointed to FIFA’s 30-year exclusion of apartheid South Africa as a precedent. During the Yugoslav wars, FIFA also suspended Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1994.

In Jerusalem, soccer player Barghouthi said he and his teammates support the campaign but don’t expect FIFA to boot Israel. “We think it’s good to put pressure on Israel over the occupation and the way it affects all Palestinians, not just athletes,” he said. “We don’t think Israel will actually be suspended, but it’s good that there is more of the world’s attention on what is happening to us. We simply wanted to be treated like athletes anywhere else in the world.”

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