Israel’s war on Palestinian sport is as old as the settler-colonial state itself. Sport is a critical aspect of popular Palestinian culture, and since culture itself is a target for the decades-old Israeli attack on Palestinian life in all of its manifestations, sport and athletes have been targeted purposely as well. Despite this very obvious fact, world football’s governing body, FIFA, in line with other international sports organisations, has done nothing to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against Palestinian sport.
Now that FIFA, along with UEFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and others have joined the West’s anti-Russia measures following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Palestinians and their supporters are puzzled. Years of relentless advocacy to sanction Israel at international sports competitions have paid little or no dividends. This has continued to be the case, despite the numerous, well-documented facts of Israel’s intentional targeting of Palestinian stadiums, travel restrictions on athletes, the cancellation of sports events, and the arrest and even killing of Palestinian footballers.
Many Palestinians, Arabs and international activists have already highlighted the issue of western hypocrisy, with condemnation and sanctions within hours of the start of the Russian military operations in Ukraine contrasting starkly with the West’s inaction against apartheid Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestine. An unprecedented wave of boycotts and sanctions of everything Russian, including music, art, theatre, literature and, of course, sport, has kicked in. What took the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa decades to achieve was carried out against Russia in a matter of hours and days.
Palestinians are justified in their bewilderment, because they have been informed by FIFA, time and again, that “sport and politics don’t mix”. Marvel at this hypocrisy to truly appreciate Palestinian frustration: “The FIFA Council acknowledges that the current situation (in Palestine and Israel) is, for reasons that have nothing to do with football, characterised by an exceptional complexity and sensitivity and by certain de facto circumstances that can neither be ignored nor changed unilaterally by non-governmental organisations such as FIFA.”
That was, in part, the official FIFA position declared in October 2017, in response to a Palestinian request that the “six Israeli football clubs based in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories should either relocate to Israel or be banned from FIFA-recognised competitions.”
Two years later, Israel callously cancelled the 2019 FIFA Palestine Cup that was meant to bring Gaza’s top football team, Khadamat Rafah Club, and the West Bank’s FC Balata together in a dramatic final. Palestinians perceive football as a respite from the hardship of life under siege and occupation. The highly anticipated match would have been a moment of precious unity among Palestinians and would have been followed by a large number of people, regardless of their political affiliation or geographic location. However, “for no apparent reason,” as reported in The Nation, Israel decided to deny Palestinians that brief moment of joy.
Even then, FIFA did nothing, despite the fact that the event itself carried the organisation’s name and was thus an officially-recognised tournament. Meanwhile, outright racist Israeli football teams, such as Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, for example, are allowed to play unhindered, to travel unrestricted and to use their favourite racist chant — “Death to the Arabs” — as if racism in sport is a perfectly acceptable routine matter.
FIFA’s double standards are abhorrent, to say the least, but it is not the only hypocrite. On 3 March, the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) went as far as denying athletes from Russia and Belarus the right to compete at this year’s Winter Paralympics held in Beijing. The decision was justified on the basis that having these athletes participate in the Games was “jeopardising the viability” of the events and, supposedly, making the safety of the athletes “untenable”, despite the fact that the Russian and Belarusian athletes were, due to the political context, set to take part as “neutrals”.
Contrast this with the treatment of Israeli athletes who are not only welcomed at all international sporting events, but also know that if individual athletes from other countries try to register a moral objection in support of the Palestinians by refusing to compete against Israelis, it can be very costly. Algerian Judoka Fehi Nourine, for example, was suspended along with his coach for 10 years for withdrawing from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to avoid meeting an Israeli opponent. The same kind of action has been taken against other players and teams for displaying symbolic solidarity with Palestine; even fans have been punished merely for raising Palestinian flags or chanting for Palestinian freedom.Mohammed Aboutrika, the former captain of the Egypt Football Team, was censured by FIFA in 2009 for displaying a shirt that read, in both Arabic and English, “Sympathise with Gaza”. For that supposedly egregious act, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) — a branch of FIFA — warned him against “mixing politics with sports”.
Aboutrika recently commented on FIFA’s double standards in a media interview: “The decision to suspend Russian clubs and teams from all competitions must be accompanied by a ban on those affiliated with Israel [because Israel] has been killing children and women in Palestine for years.”
It must be stated that the international hypocrisy here goes well beyond Palestine and Israel. It infects numerous situations where those demanding justice and accountability are often affiliated with poor nations from the Global South, or causes that challenge the status quo, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.
But there is much more that can be done aside from merely delineating the double standards or decrying the hypocrisy. True, it took the South African Anti-Apartheid movement many years to isolate the racist Apartheid government in Pretoria on international sports platforms around the world, but that seemingly impossible task was eventually achieved.
Palestinians, too, must now use these channels and platforms to continue pushing for justice and accountability. It will not just take a few days, as happened with Russia and Ukraine, but they will eventually succeed in isolating Israel, because, as FIFA’s hypocrisy demonstrates, sport and politics do mix after all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.