Palestinians score as Argentina cancels Israel match

Argentina national team player Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal for his club side Barcelona during a Spanish league match against Real Madrid, in Barcelona, 6 May.

Joan Gosa Xinhua

Palestinians are celebrating the news that Argentina – and its star Lionel Messi – will not be playing the “friendly” football match that had been set for Jerusalem next weekend.

The cancellation is a huge blow to Israel and came after an intense global campaign that kicked off in Argentina and continued in Latin America and the Spanish state, urging Argentina not to help Israel whitewash its most recent massacres of unarmed civilians in Gaza.

“We welcome news that Argentina’s ‘friendly’ football match with Israel has been canceled,” PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, stated. “The team responded to creative campaigning from fans around the world denouncing Israel’s sportswashing of its crimes against Palestinians.”

PACBI said the cancellation would boost the campaign to get Israel kicked out of FIFA over its violations against Palestinian football and its disregard for the world football governing body’s statutes.

Activists in Catalonia, home to Messi’s club side Barcelona, hailed the news as a “victory.”

Israel’s culture and sports minister, the far-right politician Miri Regev, accused “terror groups and BDS” – a reference to the grassroots boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign for Palestinian rights – of being behind the cancellation, and expressed hopes Argentina would still change its mind, The Times of Israel reported.

Lately, Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Authority-aligned head of the Palestinian Football Association, also urged Argentina to abandon the match.

“The right thing”

In the first public statement by a member of the Argentina squad, Gonzalo “El Pipa” Higuaín, who is also a star striker for top Italian club Juventus, told ESPN that “the right thing was not to go to Israel.”

Left-wing Argentinian lawmaker Gabriel Solano also welcomed the decision, tweeting, “the ball will not be stained with Palestinian blood.”

Solano added that the cancellation was a blow to the government of Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri “which had imposed [the match with Israel] on the squad as part of its agreements with the criminal Netanyahu.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally called Macri Tuesday night in an effort to reverse the decision.

But according to Israeli media, the Argentinian leader told Netanyahu “that he has no influence on the decision whether or not to hold the game as scheduled.”

Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Argentina of caving in to “anti-Semites who support terror” – the now standard Israeli government label for anyone who calls for Israel to end its military occupation, killings, land theft and other abuses against Palestinians.

While Israel openly uses sports – like the Giro d’Italia cycle race – for its political propaganda, it accuses athletes who refuse to be used in that manner of being the ones to play politics.

In that spirit, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin stated that the “politicization that lies in the Argentinian step worries me greatly” and made the outlandish assertion that “even at the most difficult of times we made an effort to leave considerations that are not purely about sports off the playing field.”

Israeli spin

Argentina’s cancellation is an enormous slap to Israel’s confidence that it would be able to continue killing Palestinians in Gaza, among other war crimes, without paying any price.

While it spills Palestinian blood, Israel expends enormous resources to use sporting and cultural events to sell itself as an attractive and progressive country.

Palestinians are determined to counter this by persuading artists, academics and athletes to stay away from Israel, just as international figures did during the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

A sports boycott was a major part of that campaign.

In an effort to spin a big defeat, Israel’s propaganda apparatus has begun spreading claims that Argentina players had received “threats.”

But the unpalatable reality for Israel is that Argentina’s cancellation comes amid a wave of new support for BDS since Israel’s killings of more than 100 Great March of Return participants that Amnesty International has dubbed a “murderous assault.”

This includes cancellations of Israel gigs by high-profile performers Gilberto Gil and Shakira, and dozens of independent bands announcing that they will respect the boycott.

“No longer possible to be indifferent”

Argentina’s newspaper Clarín confirmed that when protesters using a megaphone called individually on players not to take part in the match during a practice in Barcelona it had an impact.

“The players looked at each other surprised. The megaphone began to name the names of the Argentinian stars one by one, starting with Messi. The request, never with grievances, was the same: ‘Do not play that game,’” Clarín reported. “It was no longer possible to be indifferent to what was happening.”

The grassroots campaign included a direct appeal to Messi and his teammates from Palestinian footballer Muhammad Khalil Obeid.

Israeli snipers shot Obeid in both of his knees, ending a promising football career, during the first Great March of Return rallies near the Gaza-Israel boundary on 30 March.

Obeid’s call was supported by protests from Buenos Aires to Barcelona:

This article has been updated since initial publication.

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This decision by players and team officials is the right one. What athlete wants to be used to whitewash war crimes and crimes against humanity? What sporting association is not repelled by the welcoming embrace of a racist regime? Entertainers and sportsmen and women are now rejecting the opportunity to collaborate with apartheid. The BDS movement continues to grow across the globe, and in this instance thanks are due to the football supporters who called out to the Argentine players, asking for their solidarity. Our efforts are not wasted. Little by little, we all make a difference.

Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.