The Israel-Palestine Conflict's New Wrinkle: a FIFA Vote to Suspend Israel

The Palestinian Football Association is asking FIFA to suspend Israel, but Israel argues that Palestine is just playing politics. Either way, a vote is looming.

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May 19 2015, 1:30pm

On January 31, 2014, two teenage Palestinian footballers, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, were walking home from practice. Only a few people know precisely what happened next. But here is what we do know: both teenagers were shot in the feet by Israeli forces. Jawhar was shot 10 times—seven in one leg and three in the other—and Halabiya once in each foot. The soldiers then released police dogs on them and beat the injured players. Neither will be able to play soccer again. An Israeli police spokesperson claimed the players had been seen throwing bombs, but the players deny this.

Shortly afterwards, some observers called on FIFA to suspend or ban Israel as punishment. The issue was raised at the FIFA Congress this past June, but with the World Cup mere days away, there was little motivation to take up such a controversial measure. However, the issue will finally be raised at the upcoming FIFA Congress on May 29 in Zurich.

"[The FIFA] Congress is in an unprecedented situation," Israel Football Association CEO Rotem Kamer told VICE Sports. "Everyone is trying to avoid the vote."

Read More: Israel and Palestine Are Taking Their Fight to FIFA

The item at hand is 15.1 on the official FIFA agenda: "Proposal by the Palestinian Football Association for the suspension of the Israel Football Association." The charges against Israel go far beyond the shooting of the two footballers. Israel is accused of violating several statutes of the FIFA charter covering a variety of issues, but all fundamentally tied to its occupation of the West Bank.

The occupation, according to the resolution, prevents the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) from functioning as an independent entity. Palestinian players often cannot travel between Gaza and the West Bank for training camps or practices, a result of Israel's blockade of Gaza, under Hamas's control, which began in 2007. According to Jibril Rajoub, a major political figure in the West Bank and the PFA's president, things have only gotten worse since.

Jibril Rajoub. WikiMedia Commons

"Two years ago, we raised the issue in the Congress of FIFA. And we ask to end the suffering of the Palestinian footballers," Rajoub told me over the phone from the PFA's offices in Ramallah. "The congress authorized Blatter to come and see how we find a solution. Blatter came, the Israelis did not take him seriously, they ignored him."

On some occasions, FIFA and Asian Football Confederation officials have been prevented from entering the West Bank for official visits. Israel has also been condemned for raiding the PFA's office last November, although the Israeli military claimed a routine patrol requested IDs from Palestinians, who led them into the compound to retrieve their IDs from the football association building.

"Over the last year it has become more difficult for Palestinian football players to move between West Bank and Gaza," says Israeli-Arab Knesset member Esawi Frej, who belongs to the leftist Meretz party. Frej has served as an intermediary between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and told VICE Sports that problems between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can spread to "including things that deal with sports."

The PFA also claims hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment have been held at the border for inspection past the time it was to be used for matches. Further, the PFA alleges that any FIFA Goal Project funds—one of Sepp Blatter's major initiatives as FIFA president, which funds soccer infrastructure in underdeveloped countries—directed to the PFA must be approved by the Israeli federation, which violates FIFA rules. The IFA denies these claims.

"The Israelis keep bullying us, the bully of the neighborhood, without paying attention to anyone, without being required to comply with the statutes of FIFA," Rajoub says.

Israel argues these are just security measures, and widely cite as an example of their necessity the case of Samah Fares Muhamed Marava. Last April, Marava, a Palestinian player, was arrested for using a sporting activities visa to meet with a member of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas leadership in Qatar, to deliver money and messages, according to the Israeli security force Shin Bet.

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. WikiMedia Commons

The PFA also demands that five Israeli settlement teams operating in the West Bank—Hapoel Bika'at H'Yarden, Beitar Ironei Ma'ale Adumim, Beitar Giva'at Ze'iv Shvi, Alitzur Ironei Yehuda, and Beitar Ironei Ariel; which are allowed to play in the lower Israeli leagues despite residing in disputed territory—cease competitive play.

Israel is also charged with failing to discipline racist soccer fans, particularly La Familia, Beitar Jerusalem's notorious anti-Arab ultra fan group. Israel's new Culture and Sport Minister, Miri Regev, has been quoted saying she sits in the East Stands of Teddy Stadium, widely known as La Familia's stomping grounds. "Miri Regev is not the sports minister, she is the minister of La Familia," quipped Frej.

Regev also previously argued that Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab-Israeli club, should be kicked out of the Israeli league as a result of their fans waving Palestinian flags. Rajoub sees Regev's appointment as emblematic of a larger shift right in Israeli politics: "The issue of racism which became part of their culture...even now we have a right wing, racist minister of sport."

But Rajoub has also been accused of improperly mixing politics with sports. "Abbas will not be in power forever," said one former IFA senior official. "Rajoub knows that by using this topic, it gives him a lot of media attention and power. I believe he is using this for political aspirations."

The accusation manages to redirect the debate from the issues at hand despite the fact that politics and sports are so obviously and intrinsically mixed in this case—after all, FIFA was one of the first international bodies to officially recognize Palestine. Nevertheless, IFA CEO Rotem Kramer agreed, telling VICE Sports, "Unfortunately there is a political attempt from Palestinian Authority to involve politics in sports."

Kramer says the IFA decided not to file a counter-proposal for sanctions against Palestine—"believe me we had enough to use," he said—but opted against it because it violated the spirit of football.

Of course, Rajoub says that it's the PFA that is actually acting within the spirit of the game.

"I am trying to promote grassroots: love, friendship, neighborhood, I want to support the Palestinian causes through the ethics and values of the game, not through the violence of the machine gun. Does this bother the Israelis? Does this mean that I am acting politics? I think he who is defending settlements, he who is defending having clubs in the settlements, is defending illegitimate and racist policies by the government."

Image from Israel's 2014 rocket attacks on Gaza. WikiMedia Commons

When VICE Sports asked Rajoub whether he has been satisfied with FIFA's mediation over the past two years, he replied with a fiery diatribe which stated, in part, "I don't think the Israelis can keep using this issue of Holocaust—which I think no one like or supported, no rational people, including myself—to use it as an excuse to do the same to others! We are suffering. We are humiliated. We are facing a racist Israeli policy even in the development of the game! I think he who is not going to support our right to develop the game will not support our right to build a Palestinian, independent state next to the state of Israel.

"The Israeli crazy racist right wing government is leading the whole region to a disaster. And I think it's time now to raise a red card and ask them to stop. Let us Palestinian footballers play the game, enjoy the game like your kids and like your footballers. I think it fits now for the congress, for everybody, for Uncle Sam, for you, it's whether they are serious in having Palestinian sport entity recognized, having the right to develop the game or not."

On May 19, FIFA President Sepp Blatter will visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, among others, in a last-ditch attempt to come to some sort of compromise and avoid the international spectacle of a vote. However, Rajoub told VICE Sports that Blatter believes Israel is in direct violation of the FIFA statutes, which has solidified Rajoub's conviction not to accept a compromise. Rajoub told VICE Sports unequivocally that he wants Palestine to be treated like any other member nation, and no compromise therein will suffice. However, a source with knowledge of the situation told VICE Sports that Rajoub regards the issue of the settlement teams of lower import than the other points of contention.

"Believe me, neither the expulsion or the suspension [of Israel from FIFA] is my target," Rajoub explained. "My target is to end the suffering. If the Israelis reconsider their policies, come to the congress and say 'We recognize the very existence of the Palestinian population and association, their right to do so-so-so according to the statutes of FIFA and we accept monitoring, supervising by the Congress,' this is the solution."

Even with Rajoub's laundry list of complaints, the PFA faces an uphill battle to get the IFA suspended. The voting process itself is opaque, but any member association that doesn't want to vote can abstain. More than half of FIFA's 208 members must vote and 75 percent of the votes must be for suspension in order for the measure to pass.

VICE Sports requested details from FIFA on the voting process, including the process for abstaining and whether votes are secret or public, but a FIFA spokesperson referred VICE Sports back to the FIFA Statutes, which do not outline those procedures.

According to the former IFA senior official, there is "no chance" the PFA gets the numbers they need. "It's true that 80 percent of Africa and Asia might not support Israel in the vote, but I can tell you that 80 percent of the rest of the world will." The former IFA official mentioned the United States, Canada, Australia, and "other western nations" as securely in Israel's corner. (Rajoub told VICE Sports "Unfortunately there are some countries we will never convince them. I think like Canada. What do I expect from them?") The former IFA official added that he believes Israel will have "many surprising supporters" if the issue goes to a vote, including Jordan. The president of the Jordanian Football Association, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, is also the FIFA vice president and is running against Blatter for President of FIFA, to be elected at the upcoming FIFA Congress.

Sepp Blatter. GEPA/USA TODAY Sports

Both sides have been lobbying heavily in advance of the meeting. Kramer said the IFA has been sending letters to "several FAs." Meanwhile, Haaretz reported that Israel's Foreign Ministry is "waging a worldwide campaign" to influence the vote, speaking with "sports ministers and heads of soccer federations in more than 100 countries, supplying incriminating information on Palestinian soccer players who have supposedly been involved in terrorist activity, and attempts to blacken the name of...Jibril Rajoub."

Former prime minister Shimon Peres has also spoken on behalf of Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post, telling diplomats "to use whatever influence they had to persuade FIFA not to accede to the Palestinian Soccer Association's request to expel Israel from its ranks."

For their part, the PFA sent a letter to all 208 members stating their case (the letter is embedded in full below, along with their resolution to FIFA), and Rajoub says he has personally spoken to the leadership of every FIFA confederation. VICE Sports reached out to dozens of FIFA member nations, but few were willing to discuss the matter, and none would even admit to receiving the PFA's letter.

For his part, Rajoub sounds optimistic about the upcoming vote.

"I do believe that there will be a consensus among the congress. Now, if we want to vote for the sanctions, it's the responsibility of the congress to decide whether they are raising a white flag for the Israelis or a red card for the Israelis. But if there is anyone who is racist like the Israelis, and maybe we will find some countries like that. You know, it would be crime, it would be a mistake, believe me. South Africa is kindergarten for the Israelis and for what the Israelis are doing against the Palestinians."

Kramer also claims to be receiving positive feedback, leaving the actual results of a prospective vote hard to predict. "We are getting full support from many federations, everyone knows this is not the place to talk at FIFA Congress and that it is becoming the United Nations when things like this are discussed."

Rajoub says he will ask for the vote to be made public, claiming FIFA statutes allow him to do so. "We have the right, and I prepare to have public voting rather than confidential because if it's for everybody, it is whether they are against racism, against fascism, against the way that the Israelis are behaving here, against the Palestinians, against the Palestinian footballers or not!"

Although those participating in the FIFA Congress believe the game should be separated from politics, the very act of Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, meeting with the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president in advance of the FIFA Congress exemplifies the inextricable tie between soccer and politics. Despite their insistence otherwise, 208 representatives from almost every country in the world gathering to vote on issues and elect a leader approaches the very definition of politics.

Frej is aware of this contradiction and sent a letter to Netanyahu, stating in part, "[The IFA President] is right when he says not to mix sports with politics. But politics needs to be disconnected from sports in all its aspects. Therefore, it would be correct if Israel will review the policy regarding Palestinian athletes at checkpoints. Not because this is what the Palestinian want because it is what is right. It is important to allow Palestinian sports to thrive and progress, of course, while maintaining Israel's security."

Frej doesn't see much upside to a vote at the FIFA Congress. "For the sake of relations between Palestinians and Israel, they must come to an agreement before the vote. We must keep sport as a bridge between people."

Palestinian Football Association Resolution to FIFA Congress to Suspend Israel

Palestinian Football Association Letter to FIFA Member Associations Regarding Resolution to Suspend FIFA