Sport is often regarded as a “no go” area for politics, especially by those states intent on portraying an air of normality around their regimes on the world stage. The best opportunities for this sort of charade are presented at international sporting and cultural events. Bizarrely, in Israel’s case this means European sporting platforms even though the Zionist State is not part of Europe; it is squatting in the Middle East, shoehorned into parts of historic Palestine between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
As the international community becomes more aware of the injustices meted out on the Palestinian people by Israel, protests have increased, despite the best attempts of the state and its supporters to silence dissenting voices. Efforts to stifle free speech and the right to protest in the democratic world does not go down very well.
Hence, when the fans of Scottish champions Glasgow Celtic Football Club were instructed not to fly Palestinian flags during a match between their team and Israel’s Hapoel Beer-Sheva the outcome was fairly predictable; thousands of flags were waved by the crowd in defiance of the UEFA diktat. Now Celtic FC faces a penalty from the European governing body of the sport after the mass flag-waving during a Champions League playoff match; Celtic won 5-2, by the way.
If UEFA goes ahead and fines the Scottish club it will expose double-standards at play in the sporting world. The organisation’s Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Committee fined Celtic two years ago when fans also waved Palestinian flags during a match. The committee took action based on Article 16 (2) (e) of its regulations, which forbids political, ideological and religious messages at sports events.
However, the same disciplinary committee regularly turns a blind eye to the racism and violence meted out by some of Israel’s fans at home and away. Palestinian or Muslim footballers playing in matches against Beitar Jerusalem have been met with chants of “Death to Arabs” from the stands; as far as I’m aware, UEFA has failed to take any action against the club and its fans.
Furthermore, thugs in the crowd at Beitar – encouraged by the silence of the Israel Football Association to sanction the club for its fans’ behaviour – continue with their abuse. As a result, Beitar remains a sanctuary for racism in Israel. Its fans wave banners proclaiming “Beitar forever pure”, which is their way of pointing out that it does not sign any Arab players even though 20 per cent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs.
Assaults against Palestinians on match days, including women and children, are regular occurrences, but neither the Israel FA nor UEFA appear to be willing to end such racism. Attempts by Israel to stop Palestinian football fixtures have been well documented in Middle East Monitor, with interference regularly crossing the jurisdiction between UEFA and football’s world ruling body, FIFA.
The Israel FA not only remains silent when attacks against Palestinian sports are committed routinely, but it is also complicit with the occupation, having accepted five teams from illegal Israeli settlements. All of this is not lost on ordinary football and sporting fans around the world who refuse to be silent about such injustice. Many believe that sporting events should be used as platforms to promote peace and not to whitewash the occupation of Palestinian lands or the brutal actions of an apartheid state.
It is not Celtic FC which should be punished, but the State of Israel; it should be excluded not just from football competitions but also from major tournaments like the Olympic Games. Six members of the Palestinian team, including the 55-year-old dressage rider and German businessman Christian Zimmerman, had their official uniforms and equipment impounded by Israeli customs.
Before the games began in Rio, Munther Masalmeh, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Olympic Committee, told the media that the team’s gear had not cleared customs. “We got one shipment several months ago and we have not been able to bring it in,” he explained. “We were forced to travel without our equipment and to buy it in Brazil instead.”
In a further act of interference in the Palestinian Olympic team, Issam Qishta, the head of the Palestinian delegation, was banned by the Israeli authorities from leaving the Gaza Strip to join the Rio-bound group. The more that Tel Aviv meddles in the sporting affairs of Palestine, the more that genuine fans of sport around the world will rise up and protest.
The only common goal achieved by the Zionist State is that young Palestine athletes and their supporters resent their occupiers and are reminded constantly – on a daily basis – of the injustices of the Israeli occupation. Instead of thinking about fining courageous Celtic fans thousands of miles away in Scotland, UEFA should pressure Israel by threatening to expel it from European football.
The democratic world should also add pressure on Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement until Palestinian athletes are free to train, play and compete at the highest levels of international sport without being impeded or having their training or equipment stopped by Israeli oppression. The amazing show of support for Palestinians this week was organised via a Facebook group called “Fly the flag for Palestine, for Celtic, for Justice”. Organisers called on Celtic fans to support the BDS movement and oppose what they called “Israeli apartheid, settler colonialism and countless massacres” of the Palestinian people.
“When someone represents Israeli institutions it is sadly never merely a game,” they said. “Football, UEFA, and Celtic FC are being used to whitewash Israel’s true nature and give this rogue state an air of normality and acceptance it should not and cannot enjoy until its impunity ends and it is answerable to international law and faces sanctions for the countless UN resolutions it had breached.”
During its Apartheid years, South Africa, where most sports were segregated based on race, found itself barred from the Olympics, suspended from world football and excluded from cricket tours. International rugby teams also came under strong pressure to stay away.
Until similar sporting boycotts are imposed on Israel it seems that the Zionist State will continue to persecute and target Palestinian athletes. If Palestinians cannot play sport freely, then the world’s governing bodies will be seen as legitimising Israel’s continued occupation, oppression and apartheid policies. The fans of Celtic FC may be ordinary men and women, but they are extraordinary human beings for standing up for justice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.