Human Rights Watch charges the international football governing body FIFA with benefiting from serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by allowing the Israel Football Association to conduct games on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank.
The IFA includes six football clubs that are based in settlements, including Beitar Givat Zeev Shabi, Beitar Ironi Ariel, Ironi Elitzur Yehuda, Beitar Ironi Maaleh Adumim and Hapoel Bikat HaYarden.
Though Human Rights Watch’s extensive investigation reveals how these clubs sustain and benefit from Israel’s settlements through a web of commercial activity, Human Rights Watch confines its demands to calling on FIFA to require the Israel Football Association to move all FIFA-sanctioned games to within present-day Israel.
But this is insufficient, according to James Dorsey, who writes about football in the Middle East.
“[Human Rights Watch’s] demand that Israeli West Bank teams play in Israel proper potentially muddles issues involving the legitimacy of the settlements and the occupation,” Dorsey states. “By demanding that West Bank settlement teams play on pitches in pre-1967 Israeli territory, [Human Rights Watch] effectively accepts Israeli settlement policy.”
“The demand further leaves Israeli military policy that restricts Palestinian access to Israeli settlements unchallenged,” Dorsey adds.
Earlier this month, 66 members of the European Parliament demanded that Israeli settlement football clubs be excluded from the Israel Football Association completely.
In a letter to FIFA’s new president Gianni Infantino, the European representatives urged FIFA to “rule that settlement clubs either fully relocate within Israel’s internationally recognized borders or are excluded from the Israel Football Association.”
These concerns come in the wake of an effort by FIFA to shed its involvement in human rights scandals.
This year FIFA commissioned a report by John Ruggie, author of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to provide the sports behemoth with recommendations on how to respect human rights across its operations and business relationships.
Violating international law
The Israel Football Association’s legal adviser Efraim Barak rejected Human Rights Watch’s finding that the IFA is in violation of FIFA’s human rights policies. “The purpose of the IFA is to benefit football,” Barak said. “That is its sole concern. Political issues are not part of our ‘playing field.’”
Norman Goldstein, founder of the Maccabi Ariel football club, responded without any pretense of concern for international law: “Who exactly is the occupier here? All history books refer to the ‘period of the Arab occupation.’ That is, the Arabs are the ones who occupied!”
Human Rights Watch’s report comes a year after FIFA established a committee to monitor the ongoing dispute between the Israel Football Association and the Palestinian Football Association, which has argued that FIFA rules prohibit one member association from holding games on the territory of another.
The committee, headed by the veteran South African anti-apartheid leader Tokyo Sexwale, is due to present its recommendations to FIFA next month.
But the Human Rights Watch report goes further than just charging the Israel Football Association with violating FIFA rules.
“By allowing the IFA to hold matches inside settlements, FIFA is engaging in business activity that supports Israeli settlements,” the human rights group states.
At the beginning of this year, Human Rights Watch called on all corporations to end their business activities in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem.
The report notes that these businesses are located on land that was “unlawfully taken from Palestinians” and exploit resources to benefit Israelis and their businesses while blocking the Palestinian infrastructure and economy from developing.
Human Rights Watch’s extensive investigation into the six Israeli settlement football clubs finds that their playing fields are built on land seized from Palestinian families and villages.
The land is now off-limits to Palestinians, depriving them of land for agriculture, let alone football.
The playing field of Beitar Givat Zeev Shabi, in the Givat Zeev settlement near Ramallah, for instance, was built on land belonging to two Palestinian families.
Today, Beitunia’s football club, which is a member of the Palestinian Football Association, must train in a neighboring town because the village of Beitunia does not have enough space for its own playing field that meets FIFA requirements.
The al-Qurt family showed Human Rights Watch Israeli records that list them among the owners of the plot of land.
According to Salah al-Qurt, 67, the family used to earn their living by farming the land until the late 1970s, when Israeli soldiers blocked off access to all Palestinians. The family was never compensated, nor were they consulted when it was transformed into a football field sometime after 1999.
“We feel like strangers,” al-Qurt said. “We can see our land, but we can’t reach it, and we can’t use it.”
Al-Qurt’s nephew is now a player in the Beitunia football club.
Cycle of profit
Human Rights Watch reveals a cycle of profit made possible by the relationship between FIFA and the Israel Football Association. Though FIFA is a nonprofit it facilitates an enormous global football industry, which includes commercial activities at every stage.
“The settlement teams do not directly bring revenue to the IFA or FIFA, but they are part of the professional football industry, rooted in communities across the globe, that earns $33 billion annually and helps maintain football’s status as the most popular sport in the world,” the report states.
FIFA and Europe’s football governing body UEFA transfer millions of dollars to the Israel Football Association and in turn reap profits “as part of a reciprocal financial relationship in which FIFA and UEFA earn money from regional and international games in which Israeli teams play.”
“The clubs are an integral part of the Israeli football industry, which is in turn an integral part of the European and international football industry,” the report says.
Moreover, the money directed to the settlement clubs from FIFA, UEFA, Israeli government and settlement councils sustain illegal Israeli settlements by funding an array of jobs and services.
These services are denied to Palestinians, who are excluded from settlements unless as day laborers.
International humanitarian law forbids Israel, as an occupying power, from using occupied Palestinian land for anything except Israeli military needs or for the benefit of the Palestinian population.