Palestinians move to ban Israel from international soccer

Israel’s diplomatic battles have spread to the soccer field.

On May 29, the body that governs world soccer, FIFA, will vote on whether to suspend Israel from international play. FIFA’s 209-member countries will vote on a motion introduced by the Palestinian Football Association, which is calling for the suspension on claims that Israel is hindering Palestinian soccer and breaking international law. To pass, the motion requires the approval of three-quarters of member countries.

The Palestinian Football Association, or PFA, says Israeli security forces have blocked players and coaches from traveling to international matches and prevented players from traveling between the West Bank and Gaza. Susan Shalabi, director of the PFA’s international department, also said Israel won’t allow the Palestinian Authority to build soccer facilities.

If the Palestinian motion passes, Israel would be barred from international soccer. Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport, and though Israel qualified for a World Cup tournament only once, in 1970, Israeli soccer teams frequently travel abroad for matches. Coming amid growing economic, academic and cultural boycott efforts against Israel, expulsion from international competition in the world’s most popular sport would be a sharp blow for everyday Israelis.

Israel’s national soccer team (shown in 2013) could be suspended from the world league. photo/jta-flash90

The PFA also claims that Israeli settlements’ soccer teams should not be allowed to play in Israel’s league, saying they are located in Palestinian territory. Five such teams compete: Maaleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, the Jordan Valley and Givat Zeev.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been lobbying foreign governments to oppose the motion on the grounds that it’s a political dispute unrelated to soccer.

Shlomi Barzel, the Israeli Soccer Association’s head of communications, said, “Even the biggest Israel-hater in the world understands this has a political basis.” Barzel said the Palestinians’ complaints all concerned Israel’s security forces, not its soccer teams. He claimed that only 1 percent of all Palestinian soccer players are denied travel. When Israel denies exit permission, he said, it’s because the player in question is known to present a security risk.

Regarding settlement teams, Barzel said that as long as Israel considers the settlements its sovereign territory, the teams will be allowed to play in Israeli leagues.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter met separately this week with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to find a resolution before next week’s vote. Israel proposed giving Palestinian soccer players special identification cards and said it would provide an escort for them between the West Bank and Gaza, according to Reuters. But the PFA rejected the proposal.

This isn’t the first time the two sides have clashed over soccer. Palestinian sports officials have long been railing against Israeli restrictions on their teams. In 2012, the head of the Palestinian Olympic delegation voiced similar complaints about freedom of movement. Two years ago, Blatter convened a meeting of the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian soccer associations and created a task force to resolve the issue; his effort was not successful.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.