Will FIFA ever stand up to Israeli teams in illegal settlements?

March 17, 2017
Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

The situation for Palestinian and Arab football (soccer) players in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza has, for some time, been dire.

On one side of Israel’s Apartheid Wall, within the formal borders of Israel, segregated youth teams, racist abuse, and heckling — including charming chants such as “Death to the Arabs” — are frequent. On the other, in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, checkpoint detention, jailings, and the bombing of stadiums have become regular features of what is supposed to be the people’s game.

Given the powerful role that football plays as a point of community cohesion in the West Bank and Gaza, this everyday violence feels like a full-frontal attack on civil society, normalcy and hope.

Football in the region has been so troubled for so long that FIFA, the international body that oversees the world game, has a specific committee to monitor Israel-Palestine issues. One problem in front of them is how to handle the fact that Israel’s national football league has six teams that are based in illegal, universally condemned settlements.

The existence of these teams violates international law. It also conflicts with FIFA’s own bylaws, which state that member organisations cannot compete within the national borders of another territory without permission.

For the Israeli government, this issue is bigger than sport, but symbolic of its expansionist ideology. It is on a full-scale offensive to keep FIFA from casting out these teams.

Israel’s claim, disputed by international law, is that these settlements are actually on Israeli land, since they are in “Area C” of the West Bank. As Rory McCarthy wrote for The Guardian: “Area C [is] a designation from the era of the Oslo Accords which means Israel has full military and administrative control … It covers 60 percent of the West Bank, home to around 70,000 Palestinians.

“It is also the area in which most Jewish settlements, all illegal under international law, are built.”

This month, a wide coalition of human rights groups criticised FIFA’s indefinite dragging of its feet on the issue. The Palestinian Football Association, Human Rights Watch, the UN Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace Wilfried Lemke, and Palestinian solidarity groups around the world have demanded that football teams based in illegal settlements be moved or disbanded.

Their impatience is warranted. Initially, the FIFA Monitoring Committee on Israel-Palestine was expected to deliver a report to the FIFA council by October. But new FIFA president Gianni “Johnny Baby” Infantino quashed the report until it can be unveiled at the larger FIFA Congress in May. There, the vast landscape of competing interests and outsized influence of countries like the United States will make passage of anything deemed controversial a near-impossibility.

Sharaf Qutaifan of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said: “FIFA and the committee have bowed to political pressure, refusing to take meaningful action to end the Israeli Football Association’s violation of FIFA statutes.

“FIFA is breaching its own duty of neutrality and is discriminating against Palestine. Infantino has abandoned his promise to make a clean break from the corruption of his predecessor Sepp Blatter and has instead followed in his footsteps.”

The decision to suppress the report in the name of “constructive engagement with Israel” feels particularly hollow given the decision by Infantino in 2014, when he was the powerful head of the Union of European Football Associations, to ban clubs in the annexed Crimea region from competing in Russian tournaments.

Infantino was not open to “constructive engagement” with Russia, but seems to feel differently on Israel.

Kwara Kekana of BDS South Africa said: “South Africans know too well how ‘constructive engagement’ helped perpetuate apartheid and the suffering of black South Africans.

“Similarly, the false premise of the FIFA Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine is that the parties can talk the issues out, but there is no middle ground when it comes to international law and FIFA’s own rules. FIFA must end this sham process of committees or face widespread protest and condemnation for its double standards.”

The answer to whether FIFA should recognise teams that operate in illegal settlements should be common sense. Instead, we get obfuscation and delays.

[Abridged from Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports website. Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (2007, Haymarket).]

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