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Palestine football body to seek Israel suspension from FIFA

Palestine’s Football Association says Israel’s travel restrictions between Gaza and the occupied West Bank are hindering the training of Palestinian players
The Palestinian national soccer team, a source of pride for many, has been under attack by the Israeli state (AFP)

In late May the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) will submit to the world footballing body FIFA a request for sanctions against the Israeli Football Association (IFA) for a laundry list of infractions.

Israel imposes travel restrictions on Palestinian football players and officials - preventing them from moving freely between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and abroad – which, the PFA says, violate FIFA statutes.

The PFA says that Israel stifles the development of Palestinian football by preventing the establishment of clubs in East Jerusalem and refusing to issue necessary permits for foreign delegation visits.

Led by Jibril al-Rajoub, a well-known Palestinian politician, the PFA’s motion will be presented to representatives of FIFA’s 209 member states next month in Zurich.

If the motion is passed, Israel will become the only national team aside from South Africa – barred from FIFA in 1964 and readmitted in 1992 after the collapse of apartheid – to face exile from international football.

Like the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) recent bid for statehood at the UN Security Council, the PFA has sought to put pressure on Israel in the international arena.

“The Israelis are enjoying the status afforded by being part of FIFA while depriving a neighbouring administration of their rights to play football,” Rajoub told MEE in a central London hotel last week.

“For years we have asked confederations in Asia and Europe to interfere and stop the suffering of Palestinian footballers…. When that didn’t work we decided to go directly to FIFA’s general assembly.”

The PFA plans to press FIFA to take action over Israel’s detention and mistreatment of Palestinian footballers, such as Mahmoud Sarsak, who used to be a centre forward and in early 2012 spent three months on hunger strike while imprisoned in Israel without trial or charges.

Rajoub says he will highlight to FIFA what he calls “rampant racism” at major Israeli football clubs including Beitar Jerusalem, whose coach recently told a local radio station that he would “never consider signing an Arab player”.

Teams like Beitar, whose hardcore “La Familia” fans in 2011 famously boycotted their own team’s matches over the signing of two Muslim players from Chechnya, have not faced disciplinary action despite violating European football governing body UEFA’s regulations.

Support within FIFA

For the motion to pass it needs the support of two-thirds of the FIFA general assembly, a majority most observers say the PFA is unlikely to garner.

Still, Rajoub is optimistic. He says he has the support of two influential figures in FIFA including its president, Sepp Blatter, and Michel Platini, former manager of France’s national team now heading UEFA.

“Platini visited Palestine and Israel and tried to promote a bilateral mechanism to convince the Israelis to change,” said Rajoub. “I trust him, as an ex-star of football and a man of principles, I don’t think he can defend Israel. He has to be loyal to his principles and to the principles of the game.”

The Palestinian national football team, which formed in 1998, is currently ranked 140th in the world by FIFA. Over the last year, in response to what he calls the “systematic targeting” of Palestinian football, Rajoub has attempted to assemble forces to give Israel the ultimate sanction and, as he said, “demand the expulsion of Israel from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.”

Rajoub claims the support of Jordan, Qatar, Iran, Oman, Algieria and Tunisia in favour of this move, and promises more countries.

FIFA president Blatter recently said that he would not support the PFA’s proposal, stating that the suspension of a national federation from FIFA “is something that always harms the entire organisation.”

Palestinian Ahrar Jabarin (bottom C) wife of Palestinian national team footballer, Hisham Salhi watches a football match between Palestine and Japan in the West Bank city of Ramallah (AFP)

‘Football, nothing to do with politics’

Despite the political nature of PFA’s request for FIFA to be expelled, Rajoub maintains that his motivation is sport, not politics.

“My responsibility is to promote the ethics and values of the game among our young generations,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”

“What I am trying to do is separate completely football and politics,” he said. “Sport is a tool to bridge gaps, to build bridges with all people all over the world.”

Geoff Lee, of the UK-based campaign group, Red Card Israeli Racism, is also supporting the PFA’s motion.

“At some point the Israeli government will realise that its long-term future is better served by stopping its apartheid policies and removing the bad taste that it generates internationally,” said Lee. “Eliminating constraints on Palestinian football will be a constructive step.”

The fight will not stop in Zurich, Rajoub says, regardless of whether the motion is passed.

“We will continue to fight the Israeli racist policies against the Palestinian sport family, through FIFA, the Olympics, the Human Rights Council and the UN,” he insisted. “We will not stop our efforts until we have the right to enjoy the Olympic Charter, the statutes of FIFA, as any other sports family all over the world. This is a fundamental right for our people.”