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A game of fear: Israel, FIFA, and the threat of isolation

The Palestinians didn't have a real chance to expel Israel from FIFA, yet this threat put Israel into quasi hysteria. The fear of siege is stronger than the siege itself

Friday evening, when the Jewish holy day of Shabat (Saturday) begins, is usually the quietest hour of the week in Israel's news cycle. Only in extreme cases, such as terror attacks, is this calm interrupted for breaking news. Yesterday was one of those moments, although the news event seemed rather dull in itself: the annual congress of FIFA (Federation International de Football Association) in Geneva. But the topic on the agenda – the Palestinian proposal to expel Israel from FIFA -  made the Israeli media go wild with live coverage from inside and outside the congress hall.  

From the Israeli point of view, this event had a happy ending. Jibril Rajub, the head of Palestinian football association, withdrew the expulsion's demand at the last moment – in injury time we would say in football jargon – and Israeli football was saved. Now we are free to continue losing in any international competition, as one Israeli football commentator cynically said.   

Israeli officials, starting from Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu down to Ofer Eini, head of the Israeli football association, hailed the move as a victory for Israel and a defeat for Palestinian boycott efforts. Israel Katz, Transportation Minister and one of the more outspoken Israeli politicians, wrote in his Facebook page: "now it's time to lock Rajub in the Mukata'a (the Palestinian government compound in Ramalla) and let him play street football with his friends".

As expected, the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement which calls for the isolation of Israel was disappointed from the meagre results achieved by the Palestinian move. The formation of a FIFA commission overseeing the freedom of movement for Palestinian football players in the checkpoints and between Gaza and the West Bank seems like a lip service move aimed at relieving FIFA from the embarrassment caused by Rajub's demand.  

No more reassuring is FIFA's decision to check charges of racism against Israeli Palestinian teams and to create a body which will examine the legality of the participation of five football clubs from West Bank settlements in Israeli leagues. From the start, it seemed almost impossible for the Palestinians to garner the 75 percent majority out of 209 members needed to expel Israel from FIFA, but Rajub's last minute withdrawal did not even give them a chance.

But it would be unfair to describe the Palestinian move as a total failure. First, by raising the issue of freedom of movement for Palestinian footballers, Rajub reminded the Israeli authorities, and the Israeli public, that such a problem even exists. It is estimated that in 2014 Israel allowed for 150 Palestinian sportspeople – footballers and others - to pass from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, while some 40 requests were denied.

If we take into account that 30 percent of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza are under 30 years old, we can understand that those given permits represent only a tiny fraction of young Gazans involved in sport. As only members of the national team are usually given permits, provided that they are not considered a "security threat" by the Israeli General Security Service (Shabak), it is probable that most sportspeople in Gaza do not even bother to apply to participate in sports teams in the West Bank.

Under pressure by the Palestinian appeal to FIFA, Israel now promised that it would issue special permits for Palestinians footballers enabling them to pass through checkpoints in the West Bank and travel between Gaza and the West Bank. It has vowed to ease the entrance of sporting equipment into the occupied territories and to facilitate the building of football playgrounds and stadiums. Strangely enough, Israel is more obliged now to build a stadium in Gaza than to rehabilitate a hospital destroyed during Operation Protective Edge last summer.

It will be naïve to believe that these obligations and promises would be fully implemented as the reluctance to allow freedom of movement for Palestinians is too deeply entrenched in the mentality of the Israeli army and Civil Administration. It is also true that most Israeli politicians and media generally ignored these problems, upon which the Palestinian request to expel Israel was formally based, and claimed that the Palestinian move was aimed only at "harassing" Israel. But nevertheless, some of these issues infiltrated into the Israeli public discourse and for a moment the occupation became less transparent.

The discussion regarding the participation of teams from the West Bank settlements in Israeli leagues even strengthens this point. The Green Line, meaning the borders of Israel before June 1967, all but disappeared from the Israeli collective memory: they are not shown on official or non-official maps and every effort is done to erase them. Most Israelis, especially those under 50 years of age or those who immigrated to Israel since 1967, would fail to draw them if asked.   

As with the labeling of products manufactured in the West Bank settlements by the European Union, the Green Line comes back to life. But this time around, these are not dates from the Jordan Valley which are being targeted. It is football, Israel's national sport, which redraws the 1967 borders.

Up till now, the efforts to sanction Israel have yielded modest results. Very few international artists do boycott Israel despite pressure from the BDS movement. The moves by the European Union regarding West Bank products or firms had very little economic effects and now the attempt to drive Israel out of FIFA has failed. Israel's exports are continuously rising, reaching more than 42 billion dollars in 2014. There no way in which Israel could be described under siege or even remotely similar to the situation of South Africa under the Apartheid regime.

But as the almost hysteric reaction to the proposal to expel Israel out of FIFA shows, the shadow of sanctions and isolation hovers over Israel. Whenever a proposal to boycott Israel is put before a university or an academic forum in Europe or in the US, it receives major headlines in the Israeli press. The same goes with every forgotten musician who decides not come to Israel as a political protest.

Football, of course, is much more than music or academia. A British journalist who spend many years in Apartheid South Africa before going to Israel, once told me that preventing South Africa from participating in international rugby or cricket competitions  was psychologically much more effective than the economic or military sanctions. Driving Israel out of FIFA is a virtual nightmare for most Israelis, whether they are football fans or not.   

It is evident that fear of sanctions or boycott in Israel is ten times stronger than actual sanctions. This fear is magnified by the formation of an exclusively right wing government after the last elections, lacking figures such as Tzipi Livni or even ex-President Shimon Peres who presented in the past a more moderate face of Israel in front of the international community. The success of Eini, the president of the football association, to pull out of the difficult situation in FIFA is contributed to his being an ex-leading figure in the Labor party, head of the workers unions.

But there may be another explanation for this disproportionate fear from siege. When Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announced his plan to separate Palestinians and Israelis in buses in the West Bank, many Israelis – including right wing politicians and even settlers - looked at themselves in the mirror, saw Apartheid and did not like it. This was one of the main reasons for the quick annulment of this move.

When Rajub demands to expel Israel from FIFA, the automatic reaction in the Israeli public is one of anger and rage. But at the same time another feeling crawls in: a feeling that there is a price to pay for continuing the status quo in which millions of Palestinians are deprived of civil rights. It is rarely talked about openly, and maybe not even thought of in clear terms. But it is there. And it is in these areas that exaggerated fear may become a political factor.

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

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

Photo: FIFA president Joseph Blatter (L) and Palestine Football Association president Jibril Rajoub speak to the press, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on 20 May (AFP)