Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Moves to Soccer

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Allegations of war crimes and calls to suspend Israel from FIFA dominate Palestinian and Israeli soccer.

Legal and diplomatic battles in United Nations (UN) organizations and international sport associations are likely to shape Israeli-Palestinian ties following Binyamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory.

The contours of the coming battles are emerging on soccer pitches even before Netanyahu forms his cabinet. A Palestinian campaign to suspend Israeli membership of world soccer body FIFA has arisen, while an Israeli law firm has initiated a petition for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Major Gen. Jibril Rajoub, the Palestine Football Association’s (PFA) president. Rajoub is accused of committing war crimes during the Gaza war in 2014.

A statement on the Palestinian association’s website sought to win support for a PFA resolution, calling for the suspension of its Israeli counterpart, the Israel Football Federation (IFA). In the statement, Rajoub said the move was designed to force Israel and the IFA to:

1) Lift all restrictions on the free movement of Palestinian players, staff and officials within Palestine, defined as both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as on the import of soccer equipment;

2) Removal of all obstacles to the development of Palestinian soccer;

3) The banning of soccer clubs belonging to Israeli settlements in the West Bank from playing in IFA competitions, a demand that goes to the core of disputes over occupied territory between Israelis and Palestinians;

4) Take firm action to combat racism in Israeli soccer, a reference to Beitar Jerusalem FC, the only top Israeli club that refuses to hire Palestinian players and whose fan base is overtly racist. The IFA, the only Middle Eastern soccer association to have launched an anti-racism campaign, has repeatedly penalized Beitar, but it has stopped short of cracking down on it.

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© Shutterstock

The Palestinian campaign that has been building up for several years is embedded in a strategy that seeks to achieve recognition of Palestinian statehood by and membership in the United Nations, while at the same time isolating Israel. The strategic effort has gathered steam with the recognition of Palestinian statehood by various European countries and the acceptance of Palestine by different UN bodies, including the ICC, since last year’s breakdown of US-sponsored peace talks.

“It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, so we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and we will speed up, pursue and intensify” all diplomatic efforts, Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat told Agence France Presse.

Several years of failed attempts to negotiate a solution to Palestinian soccer problems stemming from Israeli policies have forced soccer’s top global executives to undergo serious pressure to act against Israel.

In June 2014, FIFA President Sepp Blatter averted a push for sanctions against Israel by creating a committee to oversee efforts to address Palestinian grievances and report back to FIFA within six months. The committee handed back its mandate in December after failing to negotiate a solution, according to the PFA.

UEFA President Michel Platini recently warned the IFA that Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief with presidential ambitions, planned to not only petition FIFA, but also UEFA, the European soccer body. “This time it is serious,” Platini was quoted as telling the IFA’s UEFA representative, Ali Luzon, saying that several European associations would side with the Palestinians, “even if you are right.”

Israel has been grouped in Europe since the 1990s, after Arab soccer associations forced its expulsion from the Asian Football Confederation.

Platini and FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke have previously argued that there were no legal grounds on which to act against Israel, given that obstacles to the development of Palestinian soccer were imposed by the Israeli military rather than the IFA.

That argument has been called into question by the Palestinians, who argue that the IFA is an arm of the Israeli state — a charge that matches Israeli allegations against the PFA in the complaint against Rajoub. The Palestinians bolster their claim as the IFA, like the military, is regulated by Israel’s State Comptroller, and that it is allegedly funded to a significant degree by the Israeli government.

In the latest report of alleged Israeli transgressions, the Palestinians charge that IFA demands for the PFA to “operate through the formal channels of the state of Israel” violated FIFA statutes, which stipulate that its members manage their affairs “independently and with no influence from third parties.”

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© Shutterstock

The report further argues that the IFA’s failure to take a stand against Israeli policies, which inhibit the development of Palestinian soccer, makes it difficult for the PFA to exercise its rights and fulfill its obligations in accordance with the statutes.

In a shot across the Palestinians’ bow, Shurat HaDin, Israel Law Center — which in February convinced a US jury to order the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority to pay $218 million to American families of victims of two Palestinian bombings more than a decade ago — petitioned the ICC to investigate Rajoub on charges of war crimes.

The petition asserts that Rajoub — wearing another of his many hats as deputy secretary general of Fatah, the largest Palestinian faction in the PLO headed by Abbas — was aware, abetted and endorsed rocket and mortar fire from Gaza on largely civilian targets in Israel during the conflict in 2014.

Relying on media reports, the complaint seeks to establish Rajoub’s guilt by association based on his own statements and those of other Fatah members. “Our decision is resistance in the occupied territories in order to bring an end to the occupation [using] all forms of resistance,” the complaint quotes Rajoub, who spent 17 years in an Israeli prison, as saying. It further quotes him as praising the armed resistance in Gaza.

Shurat HaDin failed to answer questions about the complaint, despite repeated promises to do so. Those questions included why the law firm had singled out Rajoub and didn’t included in its petition other senior Fatah officials, including those it quotes in its complaint.

By identifying Rajoub as a Jordanian national, it is unclear as to whether the law firm had deliberately ignored the fact that Palestine was joining the ICC as a state rather than an entity or political grouping, both of which would not be eligible for membership.

By design or default, the complaint not only serves as an early indicator of likely diplomatic and legal battles to come, but it also seeks to undermine the credibility of Rajoub, who is believed to be a potential candidate in a future Palestinian presidential election.

If successful, this could strengthen another potential candidate and arch rival of Rajoub, Mohammed Dahlan, who is widely viewed as a US, Israeli and Emirati favorite. Dahlan, a former head of Fatah in Gaza who sought to overthrow the territory’s Hamas rulers with American and Israeli backing, currently serves as an advisor to United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: ChameleonsEye / Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Laszlo Szirtesi / Shutterstock.com


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