Fifa urged to give red card to Israeli settlement clubs

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Jerusalem

  • Published
Palestinian boys dressed in football kit and carrying balls (12 October 2016)
Image caption,
Palestinian children marched on an Israeli settlement in a bid to play football there on Tuesday

A dozen Palestinian boys dressed in football kit and carrying balls, march towards a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli police and soldiers come to block the way as they approach the gates of Maale Adumim, where some 40,000 Israelis live, to the east of Jerusalem.

Surrounded by journalists, protest organiser, Fadi Quran, tells a senior officer that the children want to play a game in the local football stadium.

"You know exactly why they can't come in," says the officer.

"Is it because they're Palestinian?" Mr Quran asks.

"No, no, because you need a permit," the officer replies.

Image caption,
The protesters were stopped by Israeli security forces before they reached the settlement

"Well, people in the world are watching and I think it's important to know you have segregation," says Mr Quran.

The small protest is soon over but it has symbolic significance ahead of this week's meeting of the council of world football's governing body, Fifa, in Switzerland.

It is due to discuss whether teams from settlements, including Maale Adumim, should be barred from the Israeli Football Association (IFA).

New Fifa president Gianni Infantino has been quoted as saying it is one of his "priorities" to resolve the acrimonious dispute.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Beitar Irony Maale Adumim play in the second tier of the Israeli football league

Settlements are built on land captured and occupied by Israel in 1967, which the Palestinians want for a future, independent state. The international community sees them as "illegal" and "an obstacle to peace", but Israel strongly disagrees.

The Palestinians argue that the settlement clubs violate Fifa's own rules that prohibit a member association from holding competitions on another member's territory without their permission.

They point out that European football's governing body, Uefa, barred teams in Crimea from playing in Russia's league after the country annexed the peninsula in 2014.

In a letter addressing the issue, the Israel Football Association (IFA) says its sole concern is "to benefit football" and stresses: "Political issues are not part of our 'playing field'".

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Palestinian call is opposed by Israel's football association and by the clubs involved

An IFA legal adviser, Efraim Barak, says football should be "a means for promoting peace and neighbourly relations among people and among nations".

Fifa itself makes similar claims, but it is being pushed to take a stance and show fair play, particularly given its recent scandals.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests the IFA should be made to move all Fifa-sanctioned matches inside the internationally-recognised boundaries of Israel.

"By holding games on stolen land, Fifa is tarnishing the beautiful game of football," says Sari Bashi, HRW's country director for Israel and Palestine.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
This is not the first time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered the sport's arena

A report by the group notes that some settlement playing fields are built on privately-owned Palestinian land, and that West Bank Palestinians, apart from labourers with permits, are not allowed to enter settlements and use their services.

To underscore the inequalities, the Palestinian boys leaving the demonstration at Maale Adumim continue to chant: "Infantino, let us play."

Some come from nearby Bedouin communities, which have lost access to their land due to settlement expansion, and have pending demolition orders against their homes.

With both Israelis and Palestinians passionate about football, this is not the first time that their long-standing conflict has entered the sport's arena.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Tokyo Sexwale was named chairman of the Fifa Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine last year

Last year, amid intense global pressure, the Palestinian delegation to Fifa dropped a motion to have the IFA suspended from international football.

Instead, a monitoring committee was set up, headed by the Fifa official Tokyo Sexwale, a South African politician and former anti-apartheid activist.

It was asked to address Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian players and visiting teams, alleged racism and discrimination, and the clubs based in settlements, all of which play in Israel's lower leagues.

Mr Sexwale is now due to give his recommendations, and Palestinians and Israelis are preparing to cry foul if these do not meet their expectations.