Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Blog

By Deema Al Ghunaim 
Summer Intern, 2014

Ban Ki Moon once said “Sports is a language every one of us can speak”. If this is the case, then the current inhabitants of our planet must be fluent in football.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Palestinian leaders have turned to Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA -soccer’s leading body - to denounce the routine targeting of Palestinian athletes and their visitors by Israel.

Palestinian complaints against Israel reached a peak early this year when Israeli soldiers at a check point shot and severely wounded two Palestinian team members on their way home from a practice. Ma'an News Agency, a Palestinian news outlet, reported the shootings of Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17.  The IDF maintained that the pair were about to throw bombs at soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint, which the players vehemently deny. The young athletes— one of whom received seven bullets to his foot — were forced to quit the game, with doctors wondering whether they would be able to play or even walk again. Israel has placed routine restrictions on Palestinian football players’ freedom of movement within the West Bank and at all foreign borders, which they maintain is due to “security concerns”. Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestine Football Association (PFA) believes their security claims to be “a pretext for their racism ”

The accusations that Israel impairs the team's ability to leave the territories for international matches dates back a few years, and has won sympathy from FIFA.

Three members of Palestine’s national team were killed during the 2009 bombing of Gaza, and several have been jailed. Blatter himself spoke out for the release of one player, Mahmoud Sarsak, who was held for three years without charges, and went on a three-month hunger strike to protest his detention. “There can be no doubt that we would press for more information if those killed and jailed were members of the Spanish national team, the German national team, or the Brazilian national team” sports columisnt Dave Zirin commented in a recent editorial.

Blatter met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders last month as part of a three-day visit to the region, during which Jibril Rajoub said he will officially seek FIFA sanctions against Israel, unless the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lifts travel restrictions on Palestinian players and foreign visiting teams.  Blatter later met with PM Netanyahu and Israeli Football Association delegates where he expressed hope that sports could act as a stepping stone to solving other issues in the region

This is not the first time FIFA has attempted to alleviate the tense Palestinian-Israeli relationship. In July 2013, Blatter launched the FIFA’s Israel-Palestinian football task force after another trip to the region. The initiative includes the appointment of  UEFA liaison officers on both sides of the conflict. However, Palestinians have contested that this Task Force has failed to implement any real change or improvement on the main issues of freedom of movement and access for Palestinian athletes.

Following the visit, it was clear that Palestinian calls for sanctions would not materialize, although Blatter tweeted, ““Still some work to do, but I’m confident football will help.” While Rajoub continued to hope that "our FIFA family" would stand up against Israel's "bullying."

To make matters worse, while Fifa’s congress was set to take place in Sao Paolo on the 9th and 10th of June to discuss Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinian soccer players (amongst other matters), Israel denied a member of the delegation a visa to fly out and take part in those discussions. Mohammed Ammassi, deputy general secretary of the Palestine Football Association, had planned to travel from Gaza to the West Bank to Jordan, and then fly to Brazil. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Civil Administration, said Ammassi’s visa request was rejected because he didn't file it at least 10 days before the date of departure, a security procedure that Inbar said had been agreed on with the Palestinian team. He added that if Ammassi resubmits his request, it will be duly considered.

History has proven that football and sports in general can play a significant role in conflict resolution, as was seen during the Balkan crisis, where Yugoslavia was banned from playing in both the 1992 European Championship and the 1994 World Cup, or South Africa being banned from International Football until 1992. We can only then hope that Blatter will come to his senses and uphold article 3 of the FIFA statute, which states: “discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” Instead of simply taking pride in the fact that the Football federation has a longer member list than the UN, perhaps it is time for Blatter to step up his game and take effective action. 

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