There were dramatic scenes at the FIFA Congress in Bahrain on Thursday as delegates prepared to vote on a motion on Palestinian rights violated by Israel.
At the last moment, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino intervened over objections from the Palestinian Football Association to replace the motion with a proposal to yet again delay action for almost another year.
The Palestinian Football Association has denounced the move as illegal.
Infantino’s heavy-handed move followed a personal phone call in recent days from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Earlier this week, the FIFA Council, the executive body of the world football organization, had already capitulated to Israeli pressure and ruled out a vote sanctioning Israel for allowing its league to include teams based in West Bank settlements.
All of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law.
Moving goal posts
But there remained on the agenda a motion calling for “official recognition of the Palestinian Football Association’s entitlements to all of its rights as described in the FIFA Statutes.”
FIFA rules bar national associations from holding matches on the territory of another member without permission – as Israel does in the West Bank without Palestinian permission – so this motion would still have highlighted the Israel Football Association’s complicity in the military occupation of the West Bank.
The heads of the Palestinian and Israeli football associations made speeches for and against the motion. Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, at one point held up a photo he said showed Israeli soldiers preventing Palestinians from playing.
But after Rajoub spoke, Infantino surprised the Palestinians by substituting their motion with a new one calling for any decision to be delayed until “before end of March 2018”:
The Palestinian Football Association’s lawyer stood up and objected. He said that Infantino’s action violated FIFA rules and that if the council wanted to change the motion they would have to propose an amendment following normal parliamentary procedures.
But Infantino overruled the objection and called a vote on his substitute motion. He also promised verbally that action would be taken by October.
The motion to delay passed by 138-50.
Palestinian Football Association vice president Susan Shalabi told Al Jazeera that FIFA’s action was illegal.
“It illegally blocked the motion which was proposed in accordance with FIFA’s statutes,” Shalabi said. “It is an illegal act by the highest body in FIFA.”
“We’ve also seen clear intervention by the [Israeli] government in the business of the Congress,” Shalabi added. “FIFA has suspended member states in the past due to government interference and now it has allowed Israel to do exactly the same.”
Delays and excuses
Infantino had also claimed that action was not possible now because the report from a special monitoring committee on Israel and Palestine was not ready. But this is a gross mischaracterization.
Although the report of the two-year-old committee headed by South African anti-apartheid struggle veteran Tokyo Sexwale had been repeatedly delayed, it was indeed presented to the Palestinian and Israeli football associations in March, and each had been given a month to respond.
The only reason it had not been finalized is because the Israelis adamantly rejected it.
In its response to the report, leaked to The Electronic Intifada earlier this week, the Israel Football Association outright denies the existence of an Israeli military occupation and accuses the Sexwale committee of anti-Israel bias.
On Wednesday, Palestinian Football Association head Rajoub wrote to FIFA bosses expressing dismay at the council’s decision to defer any vote on Israeli settlement teams and urging support for its motion.
“The Palestine FA has submitted a proposal about basic rights,” the letter states. “Why this proposal is under such vehement attack by non-football entities raises so many questions by what I am sure forms a majority of the FIFA members.”
Bahrain deports human rights defender
The term “non-football entities” certainly refers to the Israeli government and its intense efforts to pressure FIFA to block action on its violations.
While Israeli officials have been given a free hand to lobby FIFA directly – including the personal intervention with Infantino by Netanyahu – the scale has been weighted against those advocating for Palestinian rights.
Bahrain detained and deported Human Rights Watch staffer Omar Shakir, who was traveling to the Gulf country to advocate for action on Israel’s violations at the FIFA Congress:
Human Rights Watch has 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.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz called the high-level maneuvers that resulted in Israel once again avoiding any accountability a “win for Israel.”
In a tweet, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel accused FIFA bosses of “working against Palestinian rights,” adding that the congress had been “hijacked by Israeli bullying tactics.”
It appears that at FIFA, as in so much of its campaign against Palestinian rights, Israel only wins when the referees are on its side.