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Football under Occupation

Football under Occupation

Football pitch. Norio Nakayama under a Creative Commons Licence

It was widely reported at the end of March that the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) would ask the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) to suspend Israel from its membership, on the grounds that Israel had violated a number of FIFA statutes and was actively curbing Palestinian soccer activities. Despite attempts by a task force set up at FIFA’s 64th congressional meeting in September 2014 to resolve the problem, Jibril Rajoub, Head of the PFA, was frustrated at the lack of meaningful progress, leading him submit the request.

FIFA’s vote on suspending Israel was scheduled to take place at the 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich on 29 May 2015, but was dropped hours before. Though an anti-climax for human rights campaigners gathered outside – who had been waving red cards in the faces of arriving FIFA officials – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the PFA had been trying to politicize sport.

FIFA recognized Palestine as a sporting nation in 1994. Due to the relaxation of FIFA’s rules on membership, this recognition meant that Palestine could call on its diaspora to join the national team. However, because of restrictions on movement, particularly for Gazans, players from the West Bank and Gaza could not train together in Egypt where the training camps were set up.

Until 2013, restrictions on movement had meant that Israel could refuse entry to overseas players into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), and players from the Gaza Strip were denied access to games in the West Bank. The District Co-ordination Office (DCO) is responsible for granting permits after considering the intended purpose of a visit, but there is no guarantee of processing time or permission. Permits for Gazans are city-specific: if they receive a permit for Ramallah, they can be deported if caught in the wrong city. Visas to train outside of the OPTs are often refused, and the lengthy checks at the checkpoints between cities notoriously cause delays and are often humiliating.

FIFA sought to ease these restrictions and reduce permit processing time. Two liaison officers, one from Palestine and one from Israel, were appointed. The PFA and Palestinian Olympic Committee deny that they made any substantial difference, and Israel used loopholes to continue to deny permits. During Youth Week in November 2013, for example, a Gazan delegation – which included the PFA’s Vice General-Secretary – was initially refused entry and was still awaiting permission three days into the week-long event. The explanation for refusal to enter was trite. ‘In general what is permitted [upon approval] are players and coaches for any official activity going from Gaza to Judea and Samaria, as well as members of the Palestinian Olympic Committee,’ the Israeli Football Association’s Liaison Officer appointed for the task force wrote.

In addition to the problem of restricted movement, there are very few places to play football in the OPTs, with Israel having severely constrained sport facility construction in the areas of the territories they control. Areas of the OPTs designated as Zone C, where, unlike in the West Bank, for example, space is in abundance, are fully controlled by Israel, and attempts to build stadia are continuously thwarted by the authorities. In 2010, the building of FIFA-funded football fields in Burin, Beit Ummar and Beit Foreeq was stopped by the Israeli administration for ‘security reasons’.

Palestinian clubs have reported the surveillance of and raiding of their grounds by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. On 4 March 2013, soldiers and intelligence officers stormed the Jabal Al-Zaitun pitch in the village of Al-Tur during an official under-14s match. The match was stopped and everyone was told to vacate the grounds. One of the referees claimed the soldiers told the children that they ‘should go play in Ramallah, not here’. PFA President Jibril Rajoub recounted the event to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, asking FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and various other sporting institutions to help Palestinian footballers in their plight.

FIFA’s support of Palestinian football has also been hindered by Israeli customs. The convoluted process of receiving and clearing goods (and the subsequent imposition of ‘storage fees’) means that equipment donated by FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has been held up in customs or only released after the payment of exorbitant fees. In 2010, a UEFA donation for youth teams and schools racked up storage fees of $15,174 because of custom delays.

Israel has allegedly also exerted political influence to halt international friendly matches between Palestine and Brazil and several African nations.

Footballers inevitably get caught up in Israel’s daily human rights abuses in the OPTs. Over a 7-year period, 38 arrests of footballers or coaches were documented. Israel’s attacks on Gaza have left many Gazan clubs without important players and caused damage to infrastructure.

There also appear to be many cases where assaults on football players have left them unable to play.

On 31 January 2013 the IDF attacked two boys, Abu Dis club player Johar Nasser Aldeen Halabiyeh and his younger relative. Johar was shot three times before being brutally beaten by the soldiers and assaulted by an IDF dog, which bit off a chunk of his arm. The two young men were then arrested. Though quickly released, they were initially denied the right to be treated in a Palestinian hospital and were sent to Hadasa Ein Karem, an Israeli hospital, before being transferred to Ramallah. The Palestinian liaison officer, Susan Shalabi Molano, wrote to her Israeli counterpart: ‘It may be worth mentioning that medical reports indicate these boys will be lucky if they can [even] jog when they recover… Football is out of the question for them now.’

A letter was sent to the General Secretary of FIFA from the Israel Football Association (IFA) on 25 August 2013 stating: ‘It must be kept in mind that we live and operate under the security limitations of the State of Israel, over which we have no control, and which are decided upon at the governmental political and defence level.’ The letter proceeded to make political demands and declare that ‘the Palestine Football Association must operate through the formal channels of the State of Israel, as other bodies belonging to the Palestinian Authority do’.

The problem with this is that it strips the PFA of its identity as an entity purely concerned with football rather than politics and the government.

PFA liaison officer Susan Shalabi complained that her Israeli counterpart ‘was no more than a soldier carrying out his duties as a justifier for the atrocities and imperfections of the system of a country that occupies another and holds a whole nation hostage. You can’t expect someone to help you if they don’t see you as equal, and these people never did.’ She stated that even if the numbers put forward by Israel – that they granted 90% of the permits requested – were true, that is of little use if the 10% they don’t grant are the captain, goalkeeper and head coach.

FIFA’s attempts to resolve the problem reached a dead end with the resignation of the task force’s independent monitor at the end of 2014, just after a raid on the PFA headquarters. For Jibril Rajoub, this was the last straw, and he decided he would call for Israel to be suspended from FIFA.

Though the call for Israel’s suspension was dropped from the agenda of last month’s Congress, Shalabi says that the PFA will co-operate with the committee FIFA appoints to address the underlying issues, which include the freedom of movement for players and officials (both Palestinian and international) into, out of and within Palestine, including east Jerusalem; the import and export of sport goods, and the ability to build and maintain football infrastructure; that all Israeli football activities in Israeli illegal settlements in the OPTs be banned; and that FIFA investigates racism and discrimination in Israeli football.

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