The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) has had some good reasons to thank football's world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), for its help. The PFA admission to FIFA in 1994, at the time of the Oslo Accords, was in itself a major encouragement to Palestinian football.
In 2008, FIFA was instrumental in building the national Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium in Ramallah, and has supported other investment in Palestinian football grounds through its GOAL programme. In 2012, the world body played an important background role in the release of the Palestine national team's star player, Mahmoud Sarsak, from his three year detention under Israel's Unlawful Combatants Law.
FIFA set up a Monitoring Committee in 2015 in response to the PFA's complaint that at the 2013 FIFA Congress it had not been allowed to explain to member associations how severely Israeli actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories repressed Palestinian football. These actions included obstacles to movement of players and officials nationally and internationally, restrictions on the import of equipment, injuries to and imprisonment of players, and the existence of settlement club teams based on occupied Palestinian land playing in the Israeli leagues. South Africa's former ANC minister and footballer, Tokyo Sexwale, was asked to chair the Committee and produce a set of recommendations for FIFA to act upon.
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All of these initiatives were taken under the presidency of Sepp Blatter who had carefully controlled the way that FIFA supported the Palestinians against a background of Israeli interventions. Further action was crucial, but when Gianni Infantino succeeded Blatter as FIFA president in 2016, events took a turn for the worse:
Despite strong opposition from Israel, Sexwale's Monitoring Committee finally presented its report in 2017. It addressed the removal of the settlement clubs from Israeli leagues for contravening both FIFA statute 72.2 and international law. However, the report suffered a number of mysterious delays and was not presented in time for discussion at the 2017 Annual FIFA Congress. It was then shelved.
The PFA, sensing that Sexwale's recommendations would be delayed or neutered, tabled its own motion with similar objectives at the 2017 Congress. By careful manipulation of the procedural rules, later endorsed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, FIFA managed to block this motion and pass it to a subsequent meeting of the FIFA Council which duly considered it to be too political for discussion, claiming that a decision would impinge on the "final status negotiations" concerning the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Council thus ignored international law. The Palestinian motion was also shelved. That statement by the FIFA Council concluded with an undertaking to "facilitate the movement of players, officials and football equipment in, out of, and within Palestine." Nothing has been heard from FIFA on the fulfilment of this pledge.
This FIFA process was almost certainly influenced by a telephone call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Infantino just days before the 2017 Congress. The exact details of the call are not known, but Israeli interests were duly served. Crucially, FIFA had adopted a position which reflected Israeli political imperatives and ignored Palestinian rights.
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Furthermore, in January 2019 the FIFA Ethics Committee forwarded to the PFA a thirty-page document, produced by an Israeli organisation called Palestine Media Watch (PMW), which criticised PFA President Jibril Rajoub and called on him to step down. The Ethics Committee's cover letter accompanying the PMW document highlighted the main complaints, thereby giving the impression that FIFA endorsed them. These included "incitement to violence", "glorification of terrorism", "prohibiting football as a bridge to peace" and "using football to promote a political agenda".
PMW is actually a rather unscrupulous political organisation headed by an Israeli settler with no position in the football world, and is financed by the Israeli government. It has an appalling track record. In 2000, PMW tried to challenge the Palestinian Authority in an Israeli court and was rebuffed in no uncertain terms by the judge. In 2016, PMW called for the resignation of Jibril Rajoub from his position as President of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, based on a thirty-page document of "evidence" similar to the one sent to FIFA. The International Olympic Committee gave it short shrift.
The reality is that the PMW is dedicated to attacking Palestinian leaders and organisations. This should have been obvious to the FIFA Ethics Committee. The fact that it chose to accept and proceed with the PMW report appears to be FIFA's way of saying that it accept Israel's political arguments and rejects Palestinian rights.
Just last month, the Sixth Palestinian Cup finals were to be played between the winners of the Gaza and West Bank leagues. The West Bank's Balata FC was able to travel to Gaza, and drew 1-1 with Khadamat Rafah on 30 June, but when it came to the second leg to be played in the West Bank on 3 July, thirty-one of the Gaza squad of thirty-four were refused permission to travel by the Israelis. The match was postponed and has still not been rescheduled.
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Delaying tactics by the Israeli border authorities have been encountered in the past, but in each case an appeal by the PFA to FIFA was effective; the world body's pressure on the Israeli authorities led to the players being allowed to travel. In this latest incident, though, the PFA appeal to FIFA has not been successful. It appears that FIFA has not been diligent in pressing the Israeli authorities to act, when above all else it needs to insist that the return leg is allowed to be played. It may be that the earlier Israeli entreaties to Infantino have had a continued influence, but we can be certain that, once again, Palestinian rights have been disregarded.
In conclusion, it seems that Israel's accusations have been accepted at face value by FIFA and not regarded as politically motivated, whereas Palestinian arguments are deemed political and inappropriate for consideration. FIFA now appears to be subservient to Israeli demands.
The recently introduced FIFA Statute No. 3 requires respect for human rights. In the case of Palestine, football's world governing body seems to be ignoring its own rules. Over the past year, the repression of Palestinian football has worsened substantially. Specifically, games have been interrupted, the installation of pitches has been delayed, officials have been arrested and international visits have been disrupted.
The need for action is even more important now than it was in 2015. It is essential that these issues are addressed. FIFA must insist on a positive response from the Israeli authorities. If this is not forthcoming then a number of sanctions can and must be applied by FIFA. International teams, for example, can be banned from having friendlies with Israeli teams, which can also be banned from international tournaments; ultimately, the Israel FA can be suspended from FIFA until the rights of Palestinians and international law are observed.
Britain's Red Card Israeli Racism (RCIR) campaign has joined together with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the international Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel to lobby FIFA for effective action in accordance with its own statutes and its avowed respect for human rights. Now is the time for football's world governing body to demonstrate that it does indeed believe in human rights, and is prepared to take action when these are abused.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.