Palestine Unbound: Palestinian Soccer

A Palestinian boy shows a red card to an Israeli soldier.  (ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images) A Palestinian boy shows a red card to an Israeli soldier. (ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian soccer players have been increasingly targeted by Israeli forces over the past six years. In 2009, Palestinian national team member Mahmoud Sarsak was detained by Israeli authorities on his way from Gaza to the West Bank for a national team match. He was subsequently held in Israeli prison without charge or trial for three years, and was only released after undertaking a three-month hunger strike. In 2014, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya were shot in the feet by Israeli forces while they were walking home from a training session in the West Bank. The assault left them unable to play soccer again.

A photo from the satirical Twitter account @IsraelOccForces. (Twitter)
A photo from the satirical Twitter account
@IsraelOccForces. (Twitter)

Incidents like these have influenced the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and members of the international community to call for Israel’s suspension from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) until Israel lifts restrictions on Palestinian soccer players. The following selections outline FIFA’s complacency vis-à-vis Israel’s treatment of Palestinian players, as well as the determination of Palestinian players to overcome these restrictions.

#RedCardJibrilRajoub

Palestinian Shehab News Agency tweeted this caricature of Handala presenting Rajoub with a red card. (Twitter)
Palestinian Shehab News Agency tweeted this
caricature of Handala presenting Rajoub with a red
card. (Twitter)

On 28–29 May, the annual FIFA Congress met in Zurich, Switzerland. On the agenda was a proposal by the PFA calling for the suspension of the Israel Football Association (IFA). After dropping a proposal for sanctions against Israel at the 2014 FIFA Congress in São Paulo, Brazil, Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rajoub vowed to deliver his proposal for Israel’s suspension from FIFA at this year’s congress.

The proposal was based on three claims: (1) Israel restricts the movement of Palestinian players both between the West Bank and Gaza as well as abroad; (2) IFA includes five teams based in Israeli settlements, over which IFA should have no authority since they play in occupied territory; (3) Israel takes no action against IFA teams that harbor racist policies or against displays of racism at matches in Israel.

In the weeks leading up to the 29 May FIFA vote, Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched a worldwide campaign against PFA’s proposal. According to Haaretz, this included meetings with “sports ministers and heads of soccer federations in more than one hundred countries, supplying incriminating information on Palestinian soccer players who have supposedly been involved in terrorist activity.” On 2 April, a message was sent to Israeli diplomats abroad asking them to discuss the issue with government sports ministers and football federation chiefs, characterizing the Palestinian proposal as a political ploy unrelated to soccer.

In the lead-up to the Zurich congress, Israel addressed some of Rajoub’s complaints including easing travel restrictions and outlining measures to combat racism at sporting events. After his trip to Israel and Palestine in early May, FIFA president Sepp Blatter argued that removing a country from FIFA would be a “historic and dangerous precedent.”

Additionally, Blatter mediated discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the PFA ultimately withdrew its proposal for Israel to be suspended from FIFA. Instead Rajoub amended his proposal, creating a committee to monitor Israeli racism and discrimination, the movement of Palestinian players and equipment, and the status of the five IFA clubs based in West Bank settlements. The FIFA delegates passed the proposal with a 165–18 vote.

In his statement to the congress, Rajoub explained, “I decided to drop the suspension but it does not mean that I give up the resistance.” He continued by alluding to the pressure he received from FIFA members, “A lot of colleagues who I respect and I appreciate explained to me how it is painful for them to hear in this family about the issue of suspension.” IFA President Ofer Eini took the stage after Rajoub, concluding: “Let’s leave politics to the politicians while we play soccer the best we can.”

A popular Twittermeme criticizing Rajoub’s withdrawal of the proposal for Israel’s suspension from FIFA.
A popular Twittermeme criticizing Rajoub’s withdrawal of the
proposal for Israel’s suspension from FIFA.

Palestinian football fans were outraged by Rajoub’s concession. Shortly after the announcement of the proposal’s withdrawal, Palestinians took to social media, and Twitter users deployed the hashtags #RedCardJibrilRajoub [in Arabic and English] and #SoldOutRajoub [in Arabic] to criticize the PFA president and call for his removal.

This section strives to capture the tenor and content of popular conversations related to the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Increasingly, these conversations are held on new and dynamic platforms unbound by traditional media. Therefore, items presented in this section are from a variety of sources, and have been selected because they either have gone viral or represent a significant cultural moment or trend.

Choice selections are also published in the Journal of Palestine Studies.

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