This week, the eyes of the world are on Fifa, the international governing body of football, after top executives were arrested in Switzerland on American corruption charges. Fifa has insisted that elections for the new president, expected to return Sepp Blatter for his fifth term, will go ahead this Friday at the body's annual congress.
Many in Palestine are eagerly awaiting this annual congress, because members are due to debate a motion put forward by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), asking Fifa to suspend Israel from world football, just as it once suspended apartheid South Africa and Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia. If the suspension goes ahead, Israeli teams would not be able to play in the Champions League or Euro 2016.
The PFA's main claim is that the Israeli authorities restrict their ability to play football. There is no doubt that any sports teams in the Palestinian territories face serious obstacles. Israel has imposed restrictions on the building of sports facilities in Palestinian territories, while imports of sports equipment have faced serious delays. There have been instances of Israeli forces breaking up football games. In the bombardment of Gaza last summer, 16 footballers were killed. Occupation also poses serious logistical problems. The PFA has struggled to form a national team with Palestinians from both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as Israel won't give players permits to leave Gaza. Players report harassment, delays, and detention at checkpoints and crossings. The PFA also argues that Israel has failed to clamp down on racist anti-Arab chants at matches and discriminatory policies at certain Israeli teams. The Israeli Football Association denies all the charges. It says that issues like restriction of movement are security measures beyond its control and that politics should be kept off the pitch.
These complaints are nothing new; for several years, the PFA has been seeking a Fifa ban for Israel, and this is the third time that such a motion has been tabled. Blatter has tried to avoid a ban, and has convinced PFA officials to stand down in the past. In a bid to stave off a vote, he has met with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, proposing that Israel eases restrictions on movements by giving Palestinian footballers special ID cards and creating a service to escort them between Gaza and the West Bank. Instead of a vote, he suggested a match between the two national teams, offering Zurich in Switzerland as a location. (Ironically, this was where the Fifa officials were arrested this week).
For the motion to be passed, the Palestinians need a three-quarter majority among the 209 member states of Fifa. It is unclear whether it will be successful, but Blatter has made it clear he is opposing the motion because Fifa isn't the right forum to address political complaints. The organisation has indicated that it is examining the issue of whether the Israeli Football Association can actually be held accountable for any of the problems that the Palestinian Football Association faces.
The bid for Fifa suspension comes against a broader context of international pressure on Israel to recognise Palestinian statehood, and of Palestinian efforts to expose the racist policies of occupation. There have been a series of successes for the Palestinian Authority in their bid for international recognition, with the Vatican and numerous European states recently acknowledging Palestinian statehood, the International Criminal Court granting membership, and the UN giving non-observer member status.
In a column in the Jerusalem Post, Gershom Baskin summed up the way that many view the issues: "Whether or not the Palestinians win the vote is only secondary to the realization that this is just the beginning of the Palestinians' diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Israel. The issue is not football or the freedom of movement of soccer players. The issue is much larger and will continue to emerge on the international stage on which Israel is now being targeted. The issue is of course the continuation of the occupation and Israel's refusal to recognize the Palestinians' right to self-determination in an independent state of their own next to Israel."
Having got as far as actually securing a vote, members of the PFA will be hoping that Fifa's current troubles do not overshadow the debate. But given that a vote to expel Israel would cause serious ructions in world football, the serious ructions it is already suffering may cause members to proceed with caution.
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