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It's time for FIFA to blow the whistle on Israeli football clubs playing in settlements

For years, FIFA has left the issue of clubs playing in settlements that violate international law unresolved. That could change this week.

If a football player kicks the ball over the line, the referee has to sound the whistle and stop the game. A player from the opposing team can throw the ball back in.

On top of violating FIFA’s rules, the settlement clubs are operating on an illegal basis because the settlements are considered to violate international law

But what happens if there are whole football clubs playing over the line – that is, outside of their country’s internationally recognised territory? As in the game itself, this is not allowed.

According to the statutes of FIFA, the world football federation, clubs from one national football association cannot play on the territory of another association without the latter’s and FIFA’s consent.

On Tuesday, FIFA’s committee for Israel-Palestine will meet in Zurich to discuss precisely such a situation, relating to six football clubs playing in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, over the pre-1967 Green Line.

FIFA has called this the “crucial” meeting on a matter which has been on its agenda for several years but rose to prominence only recently.

The international community recognises Israel’s territory up to the Green Line, while the West Bank is internationally treated as part of the occupied Palestinian territory. Therefore, it falls under the Palestinian football association, which is a member of FIFA and organises a football league in the West Bank and Gaza.

The football clubs in Israeli settlements – in the same territory - play in lower tiers of the Israeli football competition. The Palestinians have never consented to Israelis extending their football league into what the world considers their territory.

Yet, despite their complaints, FIFA has not blown the whistle and has so far allowed the game to continue over the line.

Precedent setting?

A similar situation occurred when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and incorporated its football clubs in the Russian league. Most of the world has not recognised the annexation, therefore Crimea remains de jure part of Ukraine’s territory. In that case, UEFA (FIFA’s European branch) blew the whistle, saying it would not recognise any matches played by the Crimean clubs in the Russian league.

Moscow, despite its contempt for international law demonstrated by its seizure of the peninsula, had no choice but to comply with FIFA’s rules in order to remain part of world football. Crimea had to set up its own separate football competition outside of FIFA.

Similarly, clubs from Nagorno-Karabakh, occupied by Armenia but legally part of Azerbaijan’s territory, cannot play in the Armenian league. Likewise, Turkey would not be allowed to extend its football league into Northern Cyprus which it occupies but which is treated by the world as part of Cyprus. Like Crimea, both Nagorno-Karabakh and Northern Cyprus had to establish separate football leagues outside of FIFA.

Double violation

By sticking to its rules, FIFA has managed to stay out of great controversy in those conflicts. By glossing over them in the case of Israel-Palestine, however, FIFA is being drawn right into the core of that conflict.

The settlements, now housing some 600,000 Israeli citizens and constantly expanding, are globally seen as a major obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is because they gobble up and fragment the territory of the prospective Palestinian state that should have been established as part of a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict. The encroaching settlements make that solution less and less feasible.

Compared to Crimea, the situation of the clubs in Israeli settlements is doubly problematic. On top of violating FIFA’s rules by playing on another association’s territory, the settlement clubs are operating on an illegal basis because the settlements are considered to violate international law.

Furthermore, the clubs’ playing fields have been built on land illegally seized from the Palestinians, as documented by Human Rights Watch. This should be another reason for FIFA, an organisation bound by international law, to blow the whistle and enforce the rules.

Waiting on the whistle

Yet instead of doing that, FIFA has called on the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a compromise and has repeatedly postponed resolution of the issue. In May, the new FIFA president Gianni Infantino pledged to bring a solution to the FIFA council meeting on 14 October.

The longer the issue of the settlement clubs is left unresolved, the more politicised it gets

Ahead of that meeting, the United Nations special advisor on sports Wilfried Lemke reminded FIFA that the settlements have “no legal validity” and urged a resolution of the dispute in line with UN positions and FIFA’s rules “within a reasonable timeframe”. At the October meeting, however, the issue was postponed again.

Infantino – who was the secretary-general of UEFA when it banned the Crimean clubs from the Russian league - says in the case of the settlement clubs that FIFA must “put politics aside and talk football”. Yet by getting into negotiations on the settlement clubs – including with high-ranking politicians on both sides – instead of simply following its own rules and international law, FIFA does the exact opposite and gets embroiled in politics.

The longer the issue of the settlement clubs is left unresolved, the more politicised it gets. As a sign of that, the Israeli government has been undertaking lobby efforts around the world to fend off a FIFA ruling, coordinated by the National Security Council in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office across three government ministries.

It remains to be seen what the meeting on Tuesday brings – a commitment to apply the rules or another postponement. If FIFA eventually goes for the rulebook, it will not mean an end to football in the Israeli settlements. Settlers can set up a separate football competition outside of FIFA – like the ones in Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh or Northern Cyprus.

They also have a second option: to relocate the clubs inside Israel’s internationally recognised borders – which is geographically much closer and easier for them to do than in Crimea. Moreover, the small semi-amateur clubs in settlements are marginal compared to the likes of FC Sevastopol, so a FIFA ruling should be easier for Israel to accept than it was for Russia.

What then makes the FIFA referee so hesitant to sound the whistle?

- Martin Konecny runs the European Middle East Project (EuMEP), a Brussels-based NGO.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Footballers compete the in illegal West Bank settlement of Maale Adumin (AFP)

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