Calls are mounting on FIFA to require Israel’s national league to exclude teams from West Bank settlements or face suspension from world football’s governing body.
But there are also warning signs that FIFA may be succumbing to intense pressure to once again give Israel a pass to continue violating Palestinian rights with impunity.
Last week, more than one hundred sports associations, trade unions, human rights organizations and faith groups, from 28 countries, joined world footballers, scholars, cultural figures and politicians in urging FIFA to take decisive action when its governing council meets next month in Bahrain.
Their letter criticizes FIFA for failing to apply to Israel its rule prohibiting member states from playing games on another state’s territory without permission, and violating its pledges to put human rights before politics.
All of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law.
“No normal sports”
Last year, Human Rights Watch detailed in a report how FIFA and the Israel Football Association jointly profit from Israel’s illegal colonization of the West Bank and the settlement teams that play there.
Among the signatories of the letter to the FIFA Council are UK film directors Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, former Brazilian human rights minister Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro and international law expert Richard Falk, who co-authored the recent landmark UN report on Israeli apartheid.
At a recent event in Johannesburg, another of the signatories, South Africa’s sports minister Thulas Nxesi, rejected Israel’s complaints about “the so-called politicization of sport.”
“We know from our own history as South Africans that there can be no normal sports in an abnormal society,” Nxesi said.
Nxesi recalled that FIFA was “one of the first international sports bodies to take action against apartheid South Africa.”
“We again look at FIFA to provide leadership, particularly in enforcing its own rules” over the settlement teams, Nxesi added, and to end Israel’s “persistent racist harassment” of Palestinian footballers.
Nxesi’s full comments can be seen in this video:
Meanwhile, Israel is mobilizing its diplomats in dozens of countries in an effort to stop the matter from coming to a vote.
“Our growing assessment is that the FIFA Congress is liable to make a decision on suspending six Israeli teams that play over the Green Line [in the West Bank], or even on suspending Israel from FIFA,” a foreign ministry cable warned, according to the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz.
Israel’s messaging to other countries’ FIFA delegations is to “reject mixing politics with sports.”
Israel instead wants an “agreed solution” – meaning in effect the continuation of peace process-like talks without deadlines, accountability or action.
But there are indications that behind the scenes FIFA officials may be bending under Israeli pressure.
In late March, Tokyo Sexwale, the head of a special FIFA committee on the settlements issue, presented his repeatedly delayed draft report to the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian football associations.
According to the French news agency AFP, Israeli officials were enraged at the report’s recommendations. They included possible suspension of Israel from FIFA – and consequently from international competitions – altogether.
One recommendation would give Israel six months “to rectify the situation” of the settlement clubs.
According to Haaretz, Israel Football Association head Ofer Eini “was furious and demanded that the report be amended.”
Last week, Haaretz reported that an amended version “dropped any mention of suspending Israel, but still said the settlement teams’ inclusion in Israeli leagues violated FIFA’s bylaws.”
On Sunday, Haaretz reported that it had seen a draft of the Sexwale committee report that retains the option to give Israel six months to act, but threatens no specific sanctions.
Under this option, the draft states, Israel “is given a warning by FIFA (yellow card) to rectify this issue by desisting to administer football in the territories in question within a minimum period of six months. Failure to find a resolution within this period, then the matter will revert to the FIFA Council for decision-making.”
The report does however warn that “What FIFA cannot avoid is taking a decision on this matter.”
The Palestinian association’s vice president Susan Shalabi told Al Jazeera last week that Israel’s mobilization of its diplomats as part of its intense lobbying efforts is a further violation of FIFA statutes.
“Our position on this matter is very clear: we can’t accept [the] Israeli football association running its activities on our territory,” Shalabi insisted. “If we accept a compromise, we will be part of the crime.”
Palestinian activists are vowing that FIFA will not be allowed to continue to duck the matter.
“Israel is using ‘the beautiful game’ to whitewash its violations of international law and human rights, and FIFA is shamefully standing by allowing this to happen, damaging its own reputation,” Hind Awwad, of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said last week.
Awwad added: “FIFA must realize that Palestinian and international human rights defenders will not abandon their legitimate demand for FIFA to ultimately suspend the Israel Football Association due to its inclusion of Israeli settlement clubs based on stolen Palestinian land, and due to Israel’s routine targeting of Palestinian sports, deliberate destruction of football stadiums and arrest, torture and restriction of movement of Palestinian athletes.”