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Palestinians feel betrayed by their football association

Events last Friday afternoon at the closing session of the FIFA congress in Zurich have produced a great deal of commentary and social media posts. Most focus on the actions, statements and images associated with Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA).

Although eclipsed by the FIFA corruption scandal, many were interested in the Palestinian motion to have Israel expelled from football's world body. The motion accused Israel of discriminatory policies against Palestinian players and teams, rampant racism in its stadiums and a violation of FIFA rules which prohibit teams belonging to one national association from playing in another country without the latter's approval. The last point refers to the inclusion of five clubs within the Israeli football league even though they are located in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. To succeed, such a motion required 75 per cent of the 209 votes; in simple figures, 157 votes.

Until the last moment, the Palestinian delegation insisted that it would put the motion to a vote. However, before the vote could take place, Rajoub gave a 30 minute speech that included specific and serious accusations against Israeli policies but then announced that a compromise had been reached so the motion was being withdrawn. A three-member committee consisting of a Palestinian, Israeli and a representative of FIFA will be mandated to monitor Israel's adherence to its promises to ease the travel of Palestinian footballers, allow tax-free entry of sports equipment and tackle anti-Arab racism in Israeli stadiums. The FIFA representative was announced as South African ANC official Tokyo Sexwale.

The one difficult topic was the issue of the five Israeli sports clubs in the settlements, on which Israel refused to budge. The Palestinians accepted an unusual compromise; FIFA will ask the United Nations to determine whether these settlements are in fact based in Palestinian territory that is recognised by the UN as part of the state of Palestine. Palestinian representative Rajoub insisted that the compromise be voted on by the FIFA general assembly, which was agreed by an overwhelming 90 per cent of those present.

However, the compromise didn't sit well with Palestinians and their supporters, who feel betrayed by the fact that Israel is being allowed to continue – and play football – as a regular member of FIFA. In his speech, Rajoub said that he was under tremendous pressure from the German and South African associations. European associations and some other western associations refused to accept the expulsion clause and were planning to vote against it. Other countries, like Russia, were worried that if it was approved other members might be expelled in the future for political reasons.

Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and head of the Avaaz campaigns in Palestine, disagreed strongly with the Palestinian official and called on Rajoub to resign. In a press release issued along with a petition that garnered 8,000 votes in a very short time, Rajoub's action was described as the waste of a golden opportunity. "By withdrawing the motion to expel [Israel] without any accomplishments, the Palestinian cause lost a new opportunity for partial justice because of the weakness of its leadership and its short-sightedness," Quran explained. "In agreeing to a compromise over a clear violation of FIFA statutes, Rajoub actually proved that Palestinians were playing politics rather than insisting on the implementation of the laws of the game."

Rajoub's troubles were not limited to the issue of the motion against Israel. The Jordanians were extremely angry with the Palestinian official over the perception that he voted for the four-time president of FIFA Sepp Blatter. Although Rajoub insisted publicly that he voted for Jordan's Prince Ali to be the new head of the federation, the image of Rajoub celebrating with Blatter after the vote using a symbolic sword given to him by Saudi Prince Fahed Ben Abdel Aziz didn't go down well with Jordanians. This led to calls for Rajoub to be banned from using Jordan to cross back into Palestine. The situation was so tense that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his intelligence chief, Majed Farraj, made a surprise visit to the home of Prince Ali Bin Hussein on 2 June to calm the rising anger against Rajoub that also resulted in hate speech against Palestinians. Respected Jordanian columnist Fahed Khitan defended Rajoub and attempted to put an end to Jordanian anger by pointing out that nobody was complaining about the many other Arab officials who supported Blatter publicly.

In time the issue of the FIFA vote will fade, but the issue of the worldwide boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement will not. Palestinians are clearly divided and are unable to agree on a unified position over how the non-violent struggle must continue. A national strategy and action plan supported by all major groups and factions is an absolute necessity if protection is to be given to people like Rajoub so that they may withstand the kind of pressure that he faced in Zurich and which, apparently, made him accept the unusual compromise.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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