When Palestinian Sports Become an Israeli Nightmare

The Palestine National Team's players pose for a group picture. (Photo: File)

By Issam Khalidi

Just recently Israeli police stormed the YMCA in Jerusalem in order to cancel a memorial service for the late sports activist Ahmed Adela. The ceremony also included the honoring of his colleagues from the Association of Clubs Rabitat al-Andiyah which was established in 1975 in the West Bank (and in Gaza Sector in 1980) and functioned as a ministry of sports until 1993.

Israel also prohibited a tournament for Jerusalemite families to be held under the pretext that it has been organized and financed by the Palestinian Authority without Israeli permission.

It is worth noting that the ceremony and the tournament should have been held in Jerusalem, which Israel strives to Judaize since 1967, and make it a city exclusively to the Jewish people.

During the period 1970s-80s, sport contributed to the strengthening and maintaining of the Palestinian social fabric. It brought the youth from villages and cities together. Sport at that time was based on civil organizational infrastructure; it was part of Palestinian life and culture. It is not only a game or an entertaining activity, sport is also a means for maintaining and highlighting the Palestinian national identity. As a cultural element sport always symbolized Palestine and the Palestinian people.

Israeli authorities consider all types of expression of Palestinian feelings as sinful. Everything which can symbolize Palestine or the Palestinian people is prohibited. Mohammad Hallaj points out that “What the Israeli occupation authorities object to, in fact, is the very concept of Palestine and, therefore, any form of expression of such a concept is forbidden.”

It could not be that Israel continues its occupation and oppression and at the same time allows the flourishing of sports. Occupation includes repression of all spheres of life including sports. The goal of Israel is not only to destroy Palestine politically, nationally and geographically but socially and culturally as well.

Israel is well aware of health, social, political, moral and national benefits that sport brings to the Palestinian people. It realized long ago that sports after the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948 – the Palestinian exodus) became a way for demonstrating the existence and continuity of the Palestinian people.

In brief, Israel views sport as one of the catalytic forces that help in maintaining the torch of the Palestinian cause, which had long dreamed of its demise. The current attack on Palestinian sport (by Israel, US and lately by FIFA) is part of the plan that Ilan Pape describes “to suppress and depoliticize the Palestinian issue.”

Palestinian sport is very vulnerable at this moment: FIFA is complicit with Israel to suppress Palestinian sports, International supports to Palestinians is shrinking, Arab athletic leaderships are busy with their internal conflicts, and Palestinians themselves are divided between Fatah and Hamas.

History shows that the attack on Palestinian sport is not new. After the re-establishment of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation APSF in 1944 (founded in 1931) the Zionist-dominated “Palestine Football Association” PFA cited the APSF as a rival on the sports arena. At that time APSF made great achievements; it established few athletic committees for different sports, and regional committees in different regions of Palestine (Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus, Gaza, Haifa, and Galilee). At that time championships in football, basketball, track and field and cross country had been undertaken. Many athletic matches with neighboring Arab countries’ athletes and teams were held.

Since early 1950’ Israel saw Palestinian sports as a means for demonstrating national identity. After 1948 Palestinian sports had the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, this resilience was due to the previous experience and the severity of the dispersion and dispossession.

Since 1953, Palestine started to take part in the Pan Arab Games where Palestinian athletes achieved considerable successes compared to their modest potential. In 1962 the Palestine Football Association and many other federations were founded. Israel and the Israeli lobby stood in front of the affiliation of these federation in their respective international federations especially the International Football Association FIFA under the pretext that Sector Gaza (then center of gravity of Palestinian sports) was a “territory” under the Egyptian administration; that the acceptance of a part of a country as an independent member is contrary to the FIFA regulations.

In the 1970s – 1980s social-athletic clubs and civil societies institutions were mostly part of the national movement that its line was parallel to that of the PLO. At that time clubs served as fortifications for national activities. That why the Israeli occupation attempted to put obstacles in front of them which actually stumbled their sports growth.

FIFA’s recognition of Palestine in 1998 was a major diplomatic achievement, fiercely opposed by Israel, claiming that Palestine is not yet eligible to join the United Nations as an independent country; that if the UN resolution had allowed Palestine to join the United Nations as a full member state, it would have immediately been recognized as an independent country.

Since 1998, Palestinian football did remarkable progress. In 1999 Palestine won the bronze medal in football in the Pan Arab Games in Amman. In 2017 it overhauled Israel in FIFA’s international rankings.

In its two aggressions on Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014 the world witnessed the Israeli bombing of sports facilities that were reduced into rubble. Throughout its occupation, Israel engaged in: targeting and arresting athletes, permanent raids on stadiums, the suspension of players and referees at the barriers, the confiscation of special equipment for football, hindering training and matches.

In her interview to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Suzan Shalabi Vice President of the Palestine Football Association and a member of the Executive Committee of the Asian Football Confederation points out that:

Not only the training equipment but what is worse is that the crews of clothing that were to be worn by the Palestinian team members in the Asian Cup finals we had to divert their shipment to the Gulf region for distribution there in the camp which was to be held in the last stage. Even clothes, we are talking about sports clothes, not equipment or facilities.

In order to achieve its plans, Israel is trying to put pressure on PFA through FIFA. With a Machiavellian FIFA president Gianni Infantino who believes that his complicity with Israel justify the end – FIFA’s statutes – puts his interests over the principles enshrined in FIFA’s constitution. Israel and US succeeded to bring Infantino to participate in the Bahrain conference that aimed to induce the Palestinians to give up their political demands in return for an improved economic reality.

FIFA submitted to the allegation in a report by the discredited Israeli group “Palestinian Media Watch” accusing Palestine Football Association’s president Rajoub of “incitement and “glorification of terrorism” or of “not having condemned” supposed terrorism. FIFA did not reply to an email from Electronic Intifada asking why it took allegations from such an organization seriously, and why it had apparently taken two years for FIFA to launch its investigation.

Shalabi points out that “according to the FIFA statutes, FIFA has an obligation to be neutral in matters with political significance. By accepting the lawsuit characterized with unilateral interpretations and designations of events, FIFA has adopted a position that is compatible with international legitimacy (which guarantees the right of resistance to people under occupation) and has allowed itself to label events outside its jurisdiction as “terrorism.” The perplexing question is that the current FIFA administration has no political guts.”

Currently, FIFA is turning a blind eye to Israel’s ban on allowing Palestinians to hold matches as part of the Palestine Cup. The Israeli authorities continue to ban 30 players from the Rafah Team in Gaza to play the final match of the Palestine Cup against the Balata Youth Team in occupied West Bank city of Nablus. This, it continued, is a violation of international law and of the FIFA principles which stress “the right to play.”

In her letter to the author about the influence of the Israeli lobby in FIFA, Shalabi mentioned that the Zionist lobby does not work alone in this matter. The Israeli government itself pays great attention to it. It has formed a team from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israeli Football Federation and the Ministry of Youth and Sports to block and thwart any Palestinians effort on the international sports arena. All these do not lack any training in extortion and intimidation. The other important issue is the absence of the Arab role, which is by itself not more than an emotional discourse, devoid of facts and evidence that could be refuted, and could not transcend to a level of effective influence.

– Issam Khalidi is an independent scholar living in Monterey,  California, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 (in Arabic), One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine (in Arabic and English), co-edited Soccer in the Middle East (Rutledge.), as well as articles and essays on the subject of sports included at www.hpalestinesports.net

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