Will FIFA bow to Israeli pressure over illegal settlement teams?

Palestinian children march on an illegal Israeli settlement.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Calls are mounting on FIFA to require Israel’s national league to exclude teams from West Bank settlements or face suspension from the governing body of world football (soccer).

But there are warning signs FIFA may be succumbing to intense pressure to once again give Israel a pass to continue violating Palestinian rights with impunity.

On April 19, more than 100 sports associations, trade unions, human rights organisations and faith groups, from 28 countries, joined world footballers, scholars, cultural figures and politicians in urging FIFA to take decisive action when its governing council meets in Bahrain on May 10-11.

Their letter criticises FIFA’s failure to apply to Israel its rule prohibiting member states from playing games on another state’s territory without permission. The letter says FIFA is violating its pledge to put human rights before politics.

All of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law.

Many governments and international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, consider the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be part of the territory of an occupied state of Palestine.

‘No normal sports’

Last year, Human Rights Watch detailed how FIFA and the Israel Football Association jointly profit from Israel’s illegal colonisation of the West Bank and the settlement teams that play there.

At a recent event in Johannesburg, one of the letter’s signatories, South African sports minister Thulas Nxesi, rejected Israel’s complaints about “the so-called politicisation of sport”.

“We know from our own history as South Africans that there can be no normal sports in an abnormal society,” Nxesi said.

Nxesi recalled that FIFA was “one of the first international sports bodies to take action against apartheid South Africa”.

Nxesi also called for an end to Israel’s “persistent racist harassment” of Palestinian footballers.

Israeli pressure

Meanwhile, Israel is mobilising its diplomats in dozens of countries in an effort to stop the matter from coming to a vote.

“Our growing assessment is that the FIFA Congress is liable to make a decision on suspending six Israeli teams that play over the Green Line [in the West Bank], or even on suspending Israel from FIFA,” a foreign ministry cable warned, according to the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz.

Israel’s messaging to other countries’ FIFA delegations is to “reject mixing politics with sports”.

Israel instead wants an “agreed solution” – meaning the continuation of peace process-like talks without deadlines, accountability or action.

There are indications that behind the scenes, FIFA officials may be bending under Israeli pressure.

In March, Tokyo Sexwale, the head of a special FIFA committee on the settlements issue, presented his repeatedly delayed draft report to the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian football associations.

AFP said Israeli officials were enraged at the report’s recommendations. They included possible suspension of Israel from FIFA — and consequently from international competitions — altogether.

One recommendation would give Israel six months “to rectify the situation” of the settlement clubs.

Haaretz said that Israel Football Association head Ofer Eini “was furious and demanded that the report be amended”.

On April 20, Haaretz reported that an amended version “dropped any mention of suspending Israel, but still said the settlement teams’ inclusion in Israeli leagues violated FIFA’s bylaws”.

On April 23, Haaretz said it had seen a draft of the Sexwale committee report that retains the option to give Israel six months to act, but threatens no specific sanctions.

Under this option, the draft states, Israel “is given a warning by FIFA (yellow card) to rectify this issue by desisting to administer football in the territories in question within a minimum period of six months. Failure to find a resolution within this period, then the matter will revert to the FIFA Council for decision-making.”

The report does however warn that “What FIFA cannot avoid is taking a decision on this matter.”

Palestinian determination

Palestinian Football Association officials are insisting that this time they will not back down — as in the past — when confronting Israel’s abuses at FIFA.

The Palestinian association’s vice president Susan Shalabi told Al Jazeera that Israel’s mobilisation of its diplomats as part of its intense lobbying efforts is a further violation of FIFA statutes.

“Our position on this matter is very clear: we can’t accept [the] Israeli football association running its activities on our territory,” Shalabi insisted. “If we accept a compromise, we will be part of the crime.”

In March, Palestinian and international organisations slammed FIFA president Gianni Infantino for failing to require the Israel Football Association to exclude settlement teams.

“Israel is using ‘the beautiful game’ to whitewash its violations of international law and human rights, and FIFA is shamefully standing by allowing this to happen, damaging its own reputation,” said Hind Awwad, of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

[Abridged from Electronic Intifada.]

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