The case for a football boycott of Israel is just as compelling as that for a football boycott of South Africa. South Africa was excluded from international football for twenty eight years (1964 to 1992) because of apartheid, rather than for football reasons. South African sport was, and is, really important internationally while Israeli sport is not. So why bother with sport boycott? And why football?
Firstly, football is by far Israel’s largest sport, with basketball a distant second, and the government considers football important enough to subsidise.
Secondly, and most significantly, international football is an extremely important normalising activity for Israel. Israel has worked hard to host international football tournaments. When it has succeeded it has been open about the status that it brings to the country. Reflecting this importance, on one occasion the Israeli President and Prime Minister both showed up at the welcoming televised Press Conference for a visiting European football manager.
Thirdly, the Palestinian national football team has provided a huge morale boost for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian football world was delighted that in June 2015 the champions of both Gaza and West Bank were able to meet as a result of Palestinian pressure. That deserves our strong support.
Fourthly, boycott would spread awareness of Israeli racism and abuse of Palestinian human rights across the football community worldwide; the football community understands racism. When it fully understands Israeli racism against Palestinians both on and off the field, which it doesn’t at present, it will be a strong supporter of boycott. This will take time, so it is important that we work hard to strengthen current activities.
The UK’s Red Card Israeli Racism campaign’s objective is “the suspension of the Israeli FA from FIFA and UEFA until Israel respects the human rights of Palestinians and observes international law“. Several other activist groups across Europe hold a similar objective.
Over the past few years activists’ actions have included: demonstrating against Israeli teams playing in European countries; objecting to UEFA tournaments being hosted in Israel (with some success); campaigning and lobbying FIFA, UEFA and national associations; occupying UEFA headquarters to great effect; and simply leafleting at home football matches. Leading footballers, including Eric Cantona and Frederick Kanoute, as well as leading human rights campaigners, such as, Stephane Hessell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ken Loach have leant their support. Every opportunity has been taken to educate the football world about Israeli abuse of Palestinian’s human rights which has prevented Palestine’s ability to develop its football both at national and club level.
In 2015 at the 65th Annual Congress the Palestinian FA took a big step forward by proposing suspension of Israel from FIFA until four specifically football related issues were resolved satisfactorily for Palestinians. It turned out to be a step too far – or at least too soon. FIFA politics obliged the Palestinian FA to settle for a compromise “Amendment” which at least kept the topic alive. Congress established an “Israel Palestine Monitoring Committee” to address the four football related issues where Israel imposes constraints on Palestinian football:
- Movement. Israeli border controls and road blocks in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) make life difficult for all Palestinians. Football has particularly suffered by being unable to field its best teams at international tournaments over many years. Home teams are often obliged to travel overnight to away games only 50 km away.
- Import of equipment. Israel completely controls movements’ of goods to the OPT and imposes tariffs. Football equipment has suffered long delays and huge tariffs.
- Racism in Israel. Racism against Palestinian citizens permeates Israeli society in many ways, often officially instigated or encouraged. Football chants of “death to Arabs” echo around the Beitar Jerusalem stadium, with negligible penalties being imposed. Beitar has never hired a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and is firmly sticking to that policy. The Israeli FA has hardly challenged this (indeed, Netanyahu is a Beitar supporter). It has no will. In 2015 it even proposed to split a youth league into two – one for Palestinians and one (predominantly) for Israelis, reportedly in response to requests of parents, although this was stopped after a legal challenge by Adalah.
- Settlement teams. The integration of settlement residents into Israeli society is complete. That includes settlement football teams playing in Israeli youth leagues. Israeli officials consider this acceptable and dismiss Palestinian rights to the land regardless of the illegality of the settlements under international law.
All those four issues above involve Israeli policies which stand at the very core of the regime’s policies of occupation and denial of Palestinian rights. If the Palestinian FA achieves all it demands with respect to these issues, its objectives will have been achieved and it will not need to press for exclusion of Israel from FIFA. This would mean that activists’ objectives would not be achieved.
What is the chance of the Palestinian FA succeeding through the Monitoring Committee? Progress initially was slow, with only one good success: in June 2015 Gazan and West Bank teams played each other for the first time in fifteen years. Even that needed intervention by FIFA as the Israeli border authorities held players up for several days. Since then further outrages have been committed by the Israelis, including shooting Palestinian players in the foot, tear gassing at stadiums, arrests of players and destruction of facilities. This does not auger well for the success of the Committee. Committee chairman Tokyo Sexwale noted that there was much more to do and planned to talk to Israeli politicians. The Israelis continue to drag their feet. Therefore the Palestinian FA may well need to revert to a formal demand to suspend Israel from FIFA at some point in the future.
In future the Palestinian FA will find it more difficult to call directly for the suspension or exclusion of another member in the Congress. On 26 February 2016 new “Reform” Statutes were agreed by which only the new FIFA “Council”, a revised version of the current Executive Committee, will be able to propose suspension or expulsion to a Congress. So the Palestinian FA will have to persuade the majority of the new Council to call for suspension.
Approaches to the Council should be strengthened by reference to a new report: “‘For the Game. For the World.’ FIFA and Human Rights” by Professor John G Ruggie. This was commissioned by FIFA in response to the human rights abuses in Qatar, but the scope of the report is much wider. It invokes UN Guiding Principles and recommends that FIFA adopts a clear and coherent human rights policy and robust implementation arrangements. In summary, the report is clear that FIFA must “embed respect for human rights across the full range of its activities and relationships” (page 9) and it specifically mentions relationships with member associations and other enterprises. Outside contractual agreements the report only mentions the abuse of women’s human rights in football, but clearly the report can be used much more widely – in particular to highlight what needs to be done in Palestine/Israel. Reference to this report will enable activists to emphasise that boycott is not about politics (the standard retort of football associations), rather it’s about human rights.
Clearly, on-going involvement by activists is needed. Active so far are:
While football is Israel’s major sport, its second is basket ball and there have been several demonstrations at games in Spain and France at least. There has also been boycott action at a sailing event in Malaysia, and there are many other sports where there is Israeli membership of a European federation and where action could be taken.