Tennis plays into Israel's apartheid project

Issue 

The decision by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to ban Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe'er from playing in the US$2 million Dubai tennis tournament on February 16 — sent shockwaves around the world. However, in reporting this decision, many mainstream outlets have missed the point.

Firstly, Pe'er's connection to the Israeli military is clear. Pe'er conscripted into the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in 2005 as a publicity stunt to aid the retention rate of its new generation of recruits. Israeli citizens are required to do two years of compulsory service.

Media outlets, from all over Israel and the United States were on hand to record the tennis star's first moments in Israeli uniform, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Pe'er described the experience as being better than playing Maria Sharapova, while taking orders from photographers to pose by tanks and a draft-board notice.

For helping them out, Pe'er was granted "outstanding athlete" status, which the IDF grants every year to athletes who are then allowed to serve at a reduced capacity. In other words, these athletes act as IDF poster people, while being exempt from compulsory service.

Despite this, Pe'er seemed confused about the controversy that surrounded the decision. In a February 17 statement she said: "There should be no place for politics or discrimination in professional tennis or indeed any sport."

Pe'er was right about discrimination, but for the wrong reason.

As Women's Tennis Association organisers argued in a statement published in the February 17 Independent, "Public sentiment remains high in the Middle East and it is believed that Ms Pe'er's presence would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza.

"We do not wish to politicise sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE."

The fact is that the decision to ban Pe'er was primarily made to avoid a boycott by Arab viewers: not because they were being anti-Semitic, but as a protest against the Gaza atrocities and to call for boycotts against Israel.

The UAE's action is in line with a Palestinian call for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel, which was issued by 175 Palestinian organisations in 2005. Part of this statement explicitly calls for sporting boycotts against Israel, similar to those used against South Africa's apartheid-backed sporting teams.

Despite the occupation of Palestinian territories and the denial of national rights by Israel, the international football body, FIFA, granted Palestine entry into its tournaments in 1996. A BBC report from July 2004 explains that many Palestinian football players see their position as a political one.

"In my first game, when we sang the national anthem, I could feel my body shiver", goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh told the BBC World Service's Playing for Palestine.

It has been a long journey for Palestine, where luxuries like sport are restricted. Palestinians have to contest with the huge restrictions placed on the movement of people within the occupied territories.

While capital from outside the country bankrolls the football team, this has not resolved the wider occupation that continues to oppress the people of Palestine. Team captain Saeb Jendeya told BBC News that his worst moment as a player was realised while at a training camp in Cairo when Israeli troops went into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin during the second intifada (uprising).

It wasn't until October 2008 that Palestine was able to play their first ever game in the occupied territories. The international friendly was played against Jordan in a West Bank stadium in front of 6500 ecstatic fans at a newly refurbished stadium, on the edge of the east Jerusalem.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter described the match as an "historic event" and the realisation of a Palestinian dream.

But it was a dream only partly realised. Just outside the stadium, Israel's apartheid wall loomed large. And while eleven players were allowed to travel from Gaza for the game, their captain was refused entry because of "security concerns".

Despite this, Palestinians were keen to celebrate this small victory, while acknowledging the struggle ahead for the Palestinian people. At a pre-match press conference, the West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad outlined the importance of sport in building the confidence of an occupied people.

"This is a sign of solidarity, it's a message of solidarity with the Palestinian people during a time of hardship", he said.

Many mainstream columnists have argued that sport is a right that must be protected for all people. But when basic rights of movement are restricted, as in Palestine, sport becomes just another tool of apartheid repression. Put simply, the right to play sport and live an active life is a political issue.

As long as sporting authorities continue to hide behind an apolitical banner, the right to play sport and live a free life will continue to be trampled on.

[Stu Harrison is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance. Visit http://resistance.org.au.]