Sports and the Palestinian BDS Struggle (Part 2): Palestine v. Israel at FIFA

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a Special Series based on the Master’s thesis of Aubrey Bloomfield at the New School in New York. It is comprised of three articles that, together, discuss the role of sports in the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Bloomfield considers the South African Apartheid precedent to highlight the relationship between BDS and sport, positing the question why a broad sporting boycott of Israel has not emerged despite major successes for the movement in other arenas such as academia, entertainment, and business. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

In December 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted resolution 2334, reaffirming the long-standing UN position that Israeli settlement building constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. The resolution led to renewed pressure on FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the governing body of world soccer, to take action over the presence of Israeli soccer clubs in illegal settlements within Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, which constitutes a blatant violation of both FIFA rules and international law.

The scheduled discussion of the issue at a FIFA Council meeting on 10 January 2017, however, only resulted in a promise from FIFA President Gianni Infantino that a final report by the FIFA Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine would be forthcoming within one month. 10 February then passed without any further update. FIFA’s continuing delay and prevarication is the most recent example of the struggle between Palestine and Israel playing out in the world’s most prominent sporting institution. Despite comparatively limited involvement in the past, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has an increasingly important role to play in FIFA’s eventual decision.

Head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, waves a red card while speaking at the 65th FIFA Congress. (Credit: AFP/MICHAEL BUHOLZER).

The Palestine-Israel conflict has been on FIFA’s agenda for five main reasons: 1) Israel restricts the freedom of movement of Palestinian players and sporting officials; 2) Israel disrupts the import of soccer equipment; 3) Israel interferes in the construction of soccer facilities; 4) the presence of Israeli soccer clubs in settlements; and 5) racism characterizes Israeli football. For years, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) has been pressuring FIFA to act. The PFA’s head, Jibril Rajoub, has repeatedly threatened to call for a vote on Israel’s FIFA membership given the lack of progress in addressing the issues outlined above. Each time, however, Rajoub has ultimately backed down.

In 2013, the FIFA Task Force Israel-Palestine was formed to “improve the situation of football in Palestine.” Although occasional improvements happened, most notably the lifting of Israeli restrictions on the movement of players and equipment, these gains were temporary and rare.

Despite the lack of substantive progress and Rajoub’s periodic threats, FIFA’s response has changed little; the situation in 2017 is much the same as it was in 2013. However, what is different now is the heightened profile of the issue and the growing pressure for action, primarily because of BDS campaigns.

South African government Minister Tokyo Sexwale speaking at the FIFA committee on Israel and Palestine.

FIFA’s current monitoring committee, led by former South African government minister Tokyo Sexwale, was established in June 2015 following the May FIFA Congress. In the lead-up to the 2015 meeting, Israel’s FIFA membership was the subject of sustained media coverage and debate, and not only in the sports world. Rajoub had again promised to put forward a motion to suspend Israel from the organization. Yet following an extensive diplomatic campaign by Israel, which reportedly involved lobbying over 100 countries to dissuade them from supporting the PFA motion, Rajoub again backed down, just as he had in 2014, claiming he lacked sufficient support. This resulted in the creation of Sexwale’s monitoring committee, which, predictably, has so far yielded no substantive progress.

At the time the committee was created, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter claimed that Sexwale’s “own experiences and expertise in community reconciliation and conflict resolution in South Africa” made him “well placed to help improve access for football in the Palestinian territories.” Interestingly, as an anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela, Sexwale’s own experience ought to make him empathetic with the Palestinians’ plight. However, his reference at the FIFA Congress in 2016 to the occupied Palestinian territories as “territory in dispute” suggests otherwise.

Although the PFA initially led the efforts to compel FIFA to address Israel’s impact on Palestinian soccer, or to sanction Israel if it remains unwilling to change its behavior, BDS activists have also been participating in these efforts from the beginning. Groups such as Red Card Israeli Racism (RCIR) have consistently lobbied FIFA to suspend Israel. The Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) as well as ordinary Palestinians also expressed their disappointment and outrage at Rajoub’s concession in 2015.

The Palestinian National Team.

Israel’s treatment of Palestinian sportspeople and sporting infrastructures has provided the primary justification for calls for FIFA to take action against Israel. As noted in Part 1 of this series, however, the focus has shifted towards highlighting the status of the Israeli soccer clubs in Israeli settlements built illegally on occupied Palestinian land, largely thanks to the efforts of civil society and BDS activists.

Under FIFA rules, a national association can operate clubs in the territory of another national association only with its consent, which Palestine has never granted to Israel. A recent precedent highlighting this principle was the case of Crimean soccer clubs, which were prohibited from being incorporated into Russian leagues in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the region from Ukraine in 2014.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in September 2016 focused significant attention on this issue by singling out the six Israeli teams based in illegal Israeli settlements. HRW argued that by allowing the Israel Football Association (IFA) to base clubs in the illegal settlements, and by giving financial contributions to the IFA, FIFA is actively supporting the settlements, violating international law, and contradicting its commitment to human rights.

The role of the BDS movement in these efforts, which has previously invoked the historical precedent of FIFA’s expulsion of Apartheid South Africa, continues to grow. In a featured “action alert” on its homepage, and across social media, the BNC is urging people to support its call on FIFA to “demand that the [IFA] exclude teams based in illegal settlements from its leagues, and suspend the [IFA] from FIFA if it refuses to comply.”

The increased prominence of BDS reflects not only its growing awareness of the potential significance of broad sports boycotts and sanctions to pressure Israel, but also conveys Palestinians’ frustration with the PFA’s consistent lack of follow through, despite Rajoub’s claims to the contrary.

The PFA’s 2015 concession reveals the limits of its willingness to advocate for sanctions against Israel, given its ties to the Palestinian governing establishment. (Rajoub is a prominent member of Fatah and the former head of security forces in the West Bank.) Indeed, leading BDS figure Omar Barghouti maintains that Palestinian officials spearheading the campaign to expel Israel from FIFA in 2015 “was our Achilles’ heel because the Palestinian Authority (PA) is chained to the humiliating Oslo agreement and is not designed to resist Israel’s regime of oppression in any meaningful and strategic way.”

The lack of firm institutional support from the PA means that sustained civil society pressure, which BDS seeks to generate, is crucial for convincing national and international sporting institutions, such as the PFA and FIFA, to take decisive action against Israel.

Despite its growing involvement in this issue, the BNC is only calling for Israel’s suspension if it fails to exclude the settlement clubs from its leagues. RCIR and other BDS supporters have been more forthright, calling for the “suspension of the [IFA] from FIFA until Israel respects the human rights of Palestinians and observes international law.” Suspension requires a two-thirds majority of FIFA’s 211 members.

This more explicit stance has yet to be fully integrated into BDS activists’ strategies. Moving the settlement teams inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, or excluding them from Israeli leagues, would constitute a technical victory and a symbolically significant one, too. But if it leads people to assume the issue has already been resolved, it might reduce momentum and support for continued BDS action in the sporting sphere. Meanwhile, Israel’s overall system of occupation and apartheid would remain intact.

Earlier in February, Infantino reportedly said that the monitoring committee report is “imminent.” We’ve heard this before. Yet the pressure is on Sexwale and FIFA to take decisive action. More nails are being driven into the coffin of the so-called peace process and the two-state solution, even as Israel entrenches the status quo by announcing further settlement expansion, and passing a bill that legalizes thousands of settler homes built on stolen Palestinian land in contravention of international law. FIFA may somehow contrive to postpone a decision again, but the issue isn’t going away and demands action.

About Aubrey Bloomfield 4 Articles
Aubrey Bloomfield is a writer and researcher based in New York City. He recently completed his Master’s thesis at The New School on the role of sport in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. You can follow him on Twitter @aubbloomfield.

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