On an August evening in Glasgow last year, supporters of Celtic Football Club waved dozens of Palestinian flags during a Champions League playoff match against Israeli team Hapoel Be’er Sheva, garnering global attention.
The governing body of European football (soccer), UEFA, responded by fining Celtic for violating the sacrosanct — and many say highly selective — prohibition against mixing football and politics.
But the penalty only presented members of the Green Brigade, Celtic’s famously fanatical left-wing supporters, or “ultras”, with a chance to further oppose Israeli occupation while providing practical solidarity to Palestine.
They launched a “Match the Fine for Palestine” online fundraising campaign. Celtic supporters raised and donated more than US$210,000 divided between the Lajee cultural centre in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem and the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.
This example shows the “hugely significant” potential of football — the world’s most popular sport — in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement opposing Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies.
Aubrey Bloomfield, a New York-based researcher specialising in sport and politics, told The Electronic Intifada that sport’s role in the BDS movement could have a big impact.
A successful campaign of boycott against Israeli football, Bloomfield said, “would have a significant psychological and reputational impact”.
Geoffrey Lee, a coordinator with Red Card Israeli Racism, a British-based campaign group, said football is “one of the most perfect normalisation activities” for Israel.
Within BDS, sport falls under the cultural segment, which is led by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).
PACBI spokesperson Mariam Ibrahim called the Celtic fans’ example a “model” of how football can play a central role in raising awareness about Palestine.
“The use of football to whitewash Israeli policies can be also an opportunity to open a debate to a much broader global football audience and mobilise millions to support Palestinian rights and the global BDS movement,” Ibrahim said.
Much current football BDS activism is focused on the six Israeli settlement teams in the occupied West Bank that play in the Israel Football Association leagues.
Activists are calling for FIFA, football’s global governing body, to either force Israel to exclude the settlement teams, or to exclude Israel from international competitions if the Israel Football Association refuses.
FIFA’s own regulations, specifically statute 72.2, state that clubs from one national association cannot operate in the territory of another national association without its consent.
One course of action for FIFA and UEFA could lie in applying the solution they settled on in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The “Crimean solution”, instigated by UEFA, set a precedent by enforcing the principle that teams based in occupied land (Crimea) cannot play in the leagues of the occupier (Russia). But in the case of Israel, FIFA seems to be “frozen into inaction”, Lee said.
Lee suggested, “there is a natural conservatism among the game’s authorities, and they don’t want disruption, especially when it comes to politics.”
Bloomfield said it is FIFA itself, however, that continues to mix politics and football by allowing settlement clubs to play under its authority, “in violation of both FIFA rules and international law”.
FIFA has previously responded to calls for boycott. In 1964, it suspended South Africa from international football and then expelled the country completely in 1976. It was not until 1992 and the end of the Apartheid regime, that the country’s FIFA membership was restored.
This stance is “today seen as a moment of pride for football’s governing body”, Ibrahim said. “It contributed to the international isolation of apartheid and the strengthening of international solidarity with Black South Africans resisting oppression.”
Indeed, a sporting boycott is the reason Israeli football is now played in a European framework. With most of its members refusing to play Israel, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided to expel the country in 1974. After a period in football limbo, Israel joined UEFA as a full member in 1994.
The AFC continues to push for sanctions against Israel. Last month, the confederation’s executive committee agreed to call on FIFA to seek an “urgent resolution to the ongoing Palestine issues with Israel” and help Palestinian teams to play unhindered.
BDS football strategy
In 2015, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), led by Jibril Rajoub – a former West Bank security chief seen as close to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas – threatened to call for a vote by FIFA members on Israel’s membership.
Ultimately, the PFA backed down, apparently due to a lack of support for the motion among FIFA members.
Bloomfield, however, speculated that perhaps the moves to call a vote were only ever “empty threats” intended to make Rajoub “sound tough and seem like he was standing up to Israel”.
“One important challenge is the tension between BDS and the Palestinian establishment, which includes the PFA,” Bloomfield said.
“The Palestinian establishment does not explicitly support BDS, but at times tries to strategically co-opt the movement and its political capital, something that has drawn criticism from BDS supporters.”
Ibrahim was scathing in her assessment of any PFA role in BDS, telling The Electronic Intifada: “The space for effective BDS action on Israel inside FIFA remains limited because the Palestinian Football Association, which exercises a tight control over the sports community in Palestine, has acted against Palestinian interests and rights and betrayed its duty to defend Palestinian football.”
The actions of football supporters, such as Celtic fans, have also provoked discussion on whether the BDS movement should limit itself to the issue of settlement clubs.
“[BDS] should be targeting the Israeli occupation as a whole, just as the sporting aspect of the anti-apartheid movement was focused on the whole of the apartheid system, not just racial discrimination in South African sport,” Bloomfield said.
Ibrahim agreed that “football has not been exactly prominent in the BDS movement”, but added that “momentum is now growing for the FIFA campaign”.
For Lee, part of the reason football has not played a major role in BDS so far is because of Israel’s “low profile” in international football.
He said this was a shame, “as in Israel football is of prime importance within domestic politics in order to normalise Israel” as a state with so-called European values.
Bloomfield envisions “key BDS groups developing a strategy, coordinating with supportive fans and activists, and explicitly articulating what a sporting boycott and sporting sanctions would and should look like”.
Independent, creative actions by fans such as Celtic’s are “part of why BDS has been so successful and grown so much”, he said, and should be complemented by a clearer, more comprehensive strategy to harness football’s potential.
Vulnerable sponsors, reluctant footballers
Another option for expanding the sporting boycott, Ibrahim said, is to target the economic side of Israeli football. This would involve pressuring companies that sponsor clubs while drawing attention to FIFA’s own professed commitment to ethical business practices.
Article 3 of FIFA’s statutes, for example, states that “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights”.
Ibrahim said fans should also educate their clubs and footballers about BDS and Palestine, and retired athletes, “who are more free to speak out”, taking public stands.
So far individual football players have been slow to step forward. In other areas of the cultural boycott, prominent musicians have emerged as vocal supporters, former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters being one example.
“The emergence of a Waters-type figure in sport would be a sign that the profile of the sporting aspect of BDS had already grown significantly,” Bloomfield said.
Increasing the prominence of football within BDS has great potential to complement the actions of supporters on the terraces and in the streets.
The case of Celtic serves as an example of the way sporting spaces generally, and football in particular, can be fertile ground for mobilising international support for justice in Palestine.
[Abridged from The Electronic Intifada.]