National sport and nationhood: football in Palestine
One of the IDF’s surgical strikes: the Palestine Sports Stadium in Gaza City after it was destroyed by Israeli bombing in November 2012. Four young men who were playing football at the time were killed. Photo by Ashraf Amra / APA images
FIFA may be forced to take action as something must be done to stop the relentless targeting of Palestinian footballers in Israel.
By Amit Singh, Open Democracy
March 18, 2014
Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, might never be able to walk again, whilst their dreams of playing more football have now been completely shattered. The two young Palestinian footballers were both shot in the feet after attempting to return home from training. Jawhar was shot eleven times in his feet, Adam was shot once in either foot. The Israeli border forces have claimed that the two boys were shot because they were carrying a bomb. But this narrative does not really stand up to scrutiny given that both boys had their feet specifically targeted, which would be an odd target for such highly trained and well-armed Israeli troops.
What this appears to be is a direct attack by the Israeli troops against Palestinians and yet a further example of how the Israeli state acts with impunity to target Palestinian sports as a means of exerting its dominance and reinforcing its occupation of Palestine. How this incident didn’t receive more widespread attention is typical of how Israeli crimes against Palestinians go not only unpunished but regularly ignored and repackaged as defensive strategies employed to defend Israel against aggressive Palestinian terrorists.
Dave Zirin hit the nail on the head in his report for The Nation:
Just imagine if members of Spain’s top-flight World Cup team had been jailed, shot or killed by another country and imagine the international media outrage that would ensue. Imagine if prospective youth players for Brazil were shot in the feet by the military of another nation. But, tragically, these events along the checkpoints have received little attention on the sports page or beyond.
The Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril al-Rajoub, recognized the strategy involved as he condemned the shooting and said that “Israeli brutality against them [the two players] emphasizes the occupation’s insistence on destroying Palestinian sport.” He did go so far as to demand the expulsion of Israel from FIFA, which in turn would lead to greater international scrutiny of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. What is clear, as al-Rajoub also notes, is that this is a direct attempt to stop Palestine from engaging in cultural activities such as playing sport and as such a continued attempt to undermine Palestinian nation-hood.
Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinian sport
This is not the first incident that has targeted Palestinian sport, nor can we expect it to be the last. Such incidents led to widespread pressure on UEFA to move last year’s u21 European Championships from Israel. This did not happen and the tournament continued despite Israel’s record on racism and human rights abuses and pressure from groups to move the tournament. The awarding of the tournament to Israel flies in the face of the work UEFA and FIFA claim to have done to eradicate racism from the game and again demonstrates how the international community have been turning a blind eye.
England’s under 21 team even played Israel in the Teddy Stadium, the home of Beitar Jerusalem, a controversial, yet very popular Israeli side. The club made headlines in 2013 when, following the arrival of two Chechen Muslim players to the club, supporters set fire to the club’s administrative building. The signing of the two players resulted in many Jewish Israeli fans boycotting the club, leading to a slump in ticket sales. Many fans boo when either player touches the ball and one commentator declared, ‘Beitar is dead.’ The fact that this wasn’t highlighted as a bigger issue in Europe is reflective of a double standard. When fans of Zenit St Petersburg fans wrote a letter to the club asking their side not to field black or gay players there was rightly an outcry amongst football’s global community. Such an outcry was not there to defend these players in Israel.
Fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team hold up a sign reading ‘Beitar forever pure’ in protest at the signing of two Muslim Chechen players, January 2013. Photo by Flash90
In a further attempt to disrupt Palestinian sport the Israeli state regularly detains Palestinian footballers without charge and without trial. The most high profile example of this was the case of Muhmoud Al-Sarsak, a Palestinian national footballer who himself was jailed for three years without charge or trial having only just been released at the end of a 92-day hunger strike. Palestinian footballers such as Palestinian Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Muhammed Nimr, are routinely targeted, without much comment or scrutiny.
As well as Palestinian footballers, the Palestinian football infrastructure is also a favourite target as was the case November 10, 2012 when the Israeli army bombed a sports stadium in Gaza, killing four young people who were playing football.
The aerial bombardment of November 2012 prompted over fifty professional footballers to sign a petition headed by Frederic Kanuote declaring that hosting the tournament in Israel would be seen ‘as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.’ Yet these calls were ignored and the tournament went ahead.
This racism isn’t an isolated series of events. Israeli Arabs, at best, are condemned to the status of second-class citizens. In the occupied territories it is even worse. Checkpoints prevent free movement (something that is a major roadblock to the development of Palestinian sport), while new settlements erode the little remaining Palestinian land. In the West Bank it was announced that there would be separate services for Palestinians and Israelis after Israeli security complaints. The situation is so bad that the UN have described Israel’s actions and treatment of Palestinians as being tantamount to ‘apartheid.’
Where next for FIFA?
The evidence appears to be stacking up and it is becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that Israel is not systematically targeting Palestinian footballers and athletes more generally. Sepp Blatter appears to be taking it more seriously than most. The much derided FIFA President has chaired a committee with the hopes of easing the situation at Israeli checkpoints for Palestinian athletes, which he recognizes limits the potential for Palestinian football. FIFA can act and have a history of doing so. The footballing community famously took a strong stance against apartheid South Africa, suspending South Africa from FIFA in 1963, so in line with that, shouldn’t it take a strong line against apartheid Israel?
Al-Rajoub appears confident that expelling Israel could be a reality. The Palestinian football chief claims to have the support of Jordan, Qatar, Iran, Oman, Algiers and Tunisia and expressed the hope that he could galvanize more support at a regional meeting of Arab states that took place on March 14. He has also pledged to make the resolution formal when all the member nations of FIFA meet in Brazil. A petition is also gaining support in a bid to put pressure on FIFA to take action. Something must be done to stop the relentless targeting of Palestinian footballers as part of the wider oppression that is meted out by the Israeli government in an attempt to crush the spirit of the Palestinian people.