ICAHD ACTIVISTS MEET FIFA’S BLATTER
by Jeff Halper
During the visit of FIFA President Sepp Blatter to Palestine/Israel in order to head off a vote next week to suspend Israel’s membership due to the damage its policies do to Palestinian football, I was asked to represent Israel activists supporting the suspension of Israel at a meeting with Blatter in Ramallah. Kobi Snitz initiated the event, and I went with Ruth Edmonds, ICAHD’s Administrative Coordinator and Michal Sapir of Anarchists Against the Wall.
We were introduced to Blatter by Jibril Rajoub, the chairman of the Palestinian Football Association. Because we only had a few minutes, we made a few general points: that sport is an area of life defined by rules that, within the parameters of a game at least, ensure a “level playing field.” If I make an egregious foul in football, I am shown the red card and expelled from the game. It doesn’t matter who I am. A red card and I’m out of the game. The policies of the Israeli government and by extension the state-sponsored Israeli Football Association towards Palestinian football and its players mirror the Occupation. Indeed, the IFA’s stated position is that “the PFA must operate through the formal demands of the state of Israel.” Not only does this violate the rules of FIFA itself and infringe on the right of each FIUFA member association to develop its sports unhindered by outside constraints, but it violates the very (shaky) notion that sports advances peace – which Blatter expressed to us. Until the Occupation ends and specifically Israeli harassment of Palestinian football, we told him, the IFA deserves a “red card” from FIFA.
We also raised with Blatter yet another issue for which the IFA deserves a red card: the prevalence of racism throughout Israeli football and the refusal of the IFA to take the slightest steps to stem it. Beitar Jerusalem, a prominent team in Israel’s premier football league (and sponsored by the Likud Party with state funds) has a open policy of not hiring Arab or Muslim players, even from abroad. Its fans, abusive and violent towards Palestinian players and fans of other teams, routinely chant “Death to Arabs” after every Beitar goal. The IFA has segregated its youth league between Jewish and Arab teams, and has then brought five teams from the settlements into league play. Rather than being disciplined for its pervasive racism, UEFA, the European League of FIFA in which Israel plays, awarded Israel the honor of hosting the 2013 Under-21 European Football Championship.
There was much more we could have told Blatter, although he knows the issues after his talks with the Palestinians, our task being to make him understand that IFA does not represent Israelis seeking a just peace, an end to racism and the right of Palestinian football to develop and flourish. We could have discussed the inability of Palestinian players to train or play together and even attend or host FIFA-sponsored games because of Israel interference, or the constraints Israel imposes on the import of sporting equipment. In particular, however, we could have told Blatter about the targeted attacks on Palestinian football players. In 2009 Mahmoud es-Sarsak was seized by the Israeli authorities when travelling from Rafah in Gaza to the West Bank to play a game, and was held incommunicado and without charges or trial for three years. Or Jawher Nasser and Adam Halabiya, to teenaged players shot in their legs and feel by the IDF as they were leaving football practice in al-Ram, a part of Jerusalem, and will never play again. Or the killings of three Palestinian National Team members in Operation Cast Lead: Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sabakhe and Wajeh Mostahe – not to mention dozens of others harassed, attacked or prevented from competing. Not to mention as well the IDF’s bombing of both the Palestinian National Football Stadium in Rafah and the PFA’s offices during Operation Cast Lead.
Blatter’s idea of “sports bringing peace” was to propose a “friendly” Israel-Palestine match – to be played in Zurich! Not only does this represent an insensitive form of normalization in the Israeli-Palestinian context – playing football as if Occupation and all its destructiveness of Palestinian football (and life) doesn’t exist – but far beyond. FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar in disregard of its human rights record and the horrendous working conditions of the Nepalese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangaldeshi laborers constructing the site – dying at a rate of more than one a day. Play Fair Qatar reckons that more than 62 workers will die for each game played during the 2022 tournament. Blatter and FIFA could prevent that by threatening to move the tournament if working conditions do not improve, but don’t.
The notion that sport promotes peace, so refuted by the Israeli case, downplays the invidious side of sport, especially “officially” sponsored sporting events like FIFA’s: their tie to flags and nationalism and their ability to enflame racism and hatred of the other (team, side, fans, “opponents”). The vast profits they generate also leads to corruption of vast proportions (watch this and this) and additional disincentives to deal with issues such as those affected Palestinian football.
We tried not to be confrontational in our meeting with Blatter (as the picture shows), but our message was clear: suspend the IFA from FIFA until the occupation ends and Palestinian football can develop unhindered. Blatter assured us that “he got the message,” We don’t harbor any illusions.
Jeff and Ruth
Jeff and Blatter