Foul play: Will Israel be given the red card?

Foul play: Will Israel be given the red card?
Comment: Palestinian football has been pinned back by a long list of dirty international players, but depoliticising the mandate of FIFA's Monitoring Committee is proving difficult, writes Sophia Akram.
6 min read
20 May, 2016
FIFA is concerned that everybody should be able to enjoy and participate in football [Anadolu]

In the words of Sepp Blatter, the fallen former FIFA chief, it was "in great generosity" that Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, withdrew a proposal to ban the Israel Football Association from the FIFA family for violating its statutes.

long list of complaints has hindered the ability of Palestinians to meaningfully participate in both national and international games: detaining officials and spectators at borders before prominent football events, charging extortionate custom taxes on equipment, denying permits - as well as racism within Israeli teams and the management of five football teams that exist in the West Bank on illegal Israeli-only settlements.

This list does not even include those obstacles the PFA didn't ask FIFA to examine. The PFA could have pushed for recognition of the many various human rights abuses against the Palestinian population that have affected some fantastic professional, amateur and youth players - in many cases preventing them from ever being able to play competitive football ever again.

A FIFA mechanism to facilitate the movement of people and goods in the pursuance of Palestinian football had been unsuccessful prior to 2015. Susan Shalabi, the head of International Development for the PFA said that chances of the Israeli liaison being helpful were unlikely, given they "don't even see you as an equal".

Rajoub conceded, however, that the IFA's eviction should not go ahead - provided action were taken to address Palestinian complaints.

FIFA vowed to take racism seriously, but would mandate an additional committee composed of international observers to take forward the other two points of the proposal: to facilitate the movement of people and equipment (including the erection of infrastructure) and to come to a resolution on the issue of the five settlement teams in the West Bank.

Right to movement

A human right that many Palestinians are denied is the right to free movement, and FIFA is concerned that everybody should be able to enjoy and participate in football.

However, with West Bank, Gazan and national teams being denied entry to the region in which they are competing, while spectators are held up and deliberately delayed to prevent them from attending matches, football clearly isn't open for everybody to enjoy.

Equipment is vital for the development of the sport, and embargoing the release of donated goods - and then charging release fees of up to $15,000-  serves to strengthen the barriers to Palestinians enjoying this right.

A long list of complaints has hindered the ability of Palestinians to meaningfully participate in both national and international games

On paper, all parties agree that there is progress on this point, but it is slow and far from absolute. Even as recently as April 2016 teams were held up at borders and players detained. In February, the Palestinian national team was held en route to Algiers for an international friendly, highlighting the point that Shalabi made last year.

The IFA can perhaps show incremental co-operation in numbers - but the impact is limited, if out of 100 permits or 100 personnel allowed swift entry, the five who are denied are in national squads, or are key PFA officials.

It seems that Israel can continue this strategy with impunity, by simply citing "security" as a catch-all purpose. This is unhelpful to the mechanism, particularly if no detail is provided.

It is here that depoliticising the mandate of the committee proves difficult. In his address to the 66th Congress, Tokyo Sexwale - tasked with leading the Monitoring Committee - rightly stated that the committee was not there to solve a political problem, but that in this part of the world we are talking about facilitating movement between people that have been in conflict for decades.

He recognised it as a highly politicised area where "people die every day". His gallant endeavour for people to achieve a little bit of happiness through football could be seen as naive, particularly when coupled with the second part of the committee's mandate.

Whose land is it, anyway?

Asking to ban the five teams formed on settlements in the West Bank has hit the crux of the Israel Palestine issue - land.

There are five Israeli teams situated within the occupied West Bank, on land whose settlement is considered illegal by the UN and most of the international community - including the US.

As Rajoub stated, it is not fair that management of these teams continue when the IFA has no authority over them.

It seems that Israel can continue this strategy with impunity by simply citing 'security' as a catch all purpose

Sexwale admitted that this issue was far too difficult to deal with at least it seems, diplomatically. Resembling parties to the Peace Process, they resorted to calling the land "disputed" rather than "occupied", contentious terminology in itself, and Sexwale will soon meet with further political figures, having already met with Mahmoud Abbas and others from the Palestinian Authority.

Sexwale, along with new FIFA President Gianni Infantino, is committed to "dissolving" the issue before the next FIFA Congress. The council will meet in October this year.

Lessons from Crimea

This is not the first time FIFA is tackling the issue of teams on "disputed" territory.

In 2014, teams formed in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea were banned under then-UEFA General-Secretary Gianni Infantino, as it was not recognised by the international community.

Despite similarities between the two cases, in the Crimean example the football associations of both Russia and Ukraine came to an understanding, perhaps truly managing to leave the political out of the beautiful game. This will not be so easy in the case of Israel and Palestine.

Already, Israel has attempted to manipulate the minutes from last year's Congress and take the issue out of the mandate. This led to much confusion in the Sao Paulo proceedings and deliberation on which proposal the Congress was actually voting on.

Since then, according to a PFA official, the issue's inclusion in the mandate of the Committee has been in contention.

Sexwale and Infantino fear that if not resolved before May next year, the issue will return to FIFA and end up dividing the house

They claim that a FIFA official tampered with the minutes, hid recordings and tried to force the points of the Israeli government on the mandate of the monitoring committee.

This all happened against the backdrop of corruption charges, while the Palestinian request for assistance was at risk of losing its way. There is however no longer any doubt regarding the prerogative of the monitoring committee, yet resistance from Israel continues.

Sexwale and Infantino fear that if not resolved before May next year, the issue will return to FIFA and end up dividing the house. Last year, Rajoub asked that the UN be called to decide on the validity of IFA-managed teams on settlement land, and this year he stated it would be the last time he asked for protection of his people.

Israel, however, will not be willing to accept a strike such as this, scoring a goal for the BDS campaign, which is proving to be a formidable opponent. 

The Israeli side has yet to deploy all its tactics, but a clean vote at the Congress could be favourable to the PFA. Unlike at the UN, the equitable voting power of all FIFA members is likely see the "global South" cheer for Palestine - along with all other nations who appreciate a fair game.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.