FIFA found itself in an uncomfortable position this week when Palestinian officials threatened to call for official sanctions against Israel for interfering with Arab athletes traveling between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. FIFA President Sepp Blatter decided against punishing the Israeli football association on Tuesday, calling instead for a solution with Palestine that does not involve “politics” in the sport.
Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestine Football Association, said they will call for Israel’s expulsion at the FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo, scheduled to take place during the 2014 World Cup. Palestine had initially requested sanctions against its neighbor last year, after Arab players were denied entry to the West Bank for a youth tournament.
Blatter claimed that Israel has not broken any regulations, however, and continued to insist that he cannot take action against a member unless they breach regulations or statutes. He went on to call Israel “a good standing member” of the organization. The FIFA president spoke adamantly against “mixing” politics with sport, expressing his hope that Israel and Palestine can find a solution that will allow the countries to coexist in international soccer.
Rajoub blamed the Israeli government for the grievances against Arab athletes, but urged FIFA to hold the Israeli football association accountable, as it is “subservient” to the its government. Palestinian officials said last year that Israeli politics were “smothering” the development of soccer in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel says Palestine is not innocent in the dispute, however. Officials alleged that Palestinian militants have been shooting rockets at Israeli cities from its football stadiums, and are using the game to spread anti-Israel propaganda.
FIFA created a taskforce last July to address the situation and come up with a viable solution. Blatter met with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Monday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, and presented both with a memorandum of understanding. Though Blatter did not reveal the details of the document to the public, both leaders were urged to sign when the FIFA Congress meets.
A liaison officer has been assigned to each association to assist with the compromise, working several days a week, according to Blatter. He credited both countries, saying they are making efforts to cooperate so far, but he noted that the Palestinians are not completely satisfied with the progress.
The West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem have been under Israeli control since the 1967 war with Jordan and Egypt. Palestine wants those areas for a state, leading Israel to place tough restrictions on Palestinian travel—for security reasons, it claims, as officials fear suicide bombings and other attacks by militants.
Rajoub called Israel the neighborhood “bully,” saying players are not the only Palestinians affected by the restrictions. Delegates and foreign visitors have also been prevented from traveling, leading Rajoub to accuse Israel of “destroying” Palestinian sports. Palestine wants Israel to recognize it as a sports entity and lift the restrictions for players and visitors associated with Palestinian soccer, Rajoub said. Palestine officials consider their country to be an active member of FIFA, but feel Israel is deliberately placing obstacles in their path. Reports claim that other Middle Eastern countries have said they will back Palestine if it asks for sanctions against or the expulsion of Israel.
FIFA President Blatter made it clear that he hopes to find a non-political solution to the issues between Israel and Palestine, at least so far as soccer is concerned. Blatter wants to separate the politics from the sport and expects both leaders to sign the memorandum before the start of the World Cup next month in Brazil.
By Christina Jones