While the so-far fruitless peace talks hang by a thread, the effort to delegitimize Israel by Palestinian authorities continues relentlessly, even in sports.
Since the FIFA Congress in Mauritius last summer, the Palestinian Football Association, headed by chairman Jibril Rajoub, has threatened to seek the expulsion of Israel from world football’s governing body.
The PFA is demanding that Israeli security forces ease the travel restrictions on players and officials, with a recent incident in the West Bank bringing to the forefront the plight of Palestinian players, or their involvement in terrorist activity, depending on who you choose to believe.
There is no argument regarding the fact that Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, were shot in the feet by Border Police troops on the evening of January 31.
The two Abu Dis residents, a town east of Jerusalem, claim that they were walking home from a training session at the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in al-Ram, on their way to visit a friend in a neighborhood close to a Border Police base, when they were shot without warning as soon as they struck a match to light a cigarette.
The Border Police spokesman said that they were seen just seconds before, throwing bombs at security forces.
When they saw the Border Policemen, the group attempted to run away and tried again to throw bombs at the policemen. According to the spokesman: “The policemen initiated the protocol for opening fire in order to neutralize the threat. The suspects were apprehended, and a bomb was found on them, which has been deactivated.”
The spokesman also provided a photo of the bomb, but that didn’t prevent the outcries that Israeli forces were cruelly and deliberately shooting innocent Palestinian teenagers, in this case soccer players.
However, the fact that the two, who were initially treated for their wounds at the Hadassah University Hospital, were players, was exploited by Rajoub in his attempt to punish local soccer for what he deems as the sins of Israeli occupation.
Rajoub has used this tactic for a while, and has done so with some success, aiming to put pressure on the Israeli government and citizens by targeting their love for sport.
In large part due to Rajoub’s efforts, FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced the establishment of a Task Force last July aimed at improving the movement of players, coaches, referees, officials and equipment into, out of and within the Palestinian territories.
Blatter visited the region last September and the sides met again in Zurich at the start of February, with both associations providing progress reports and according to a FIFA statement: “Agreed on the fact that the new mechanism had improved communication between them while accelerating the decision- making process concerning the movement of football representatives.”
FIFA is hoping that a “Memorandum of Understanding” will be signed ahead of the upcoming FIFA Congress to be held in Brazil before the start of the World Cup in June, the same Congress in which Rajoub plans to seek the expulsion of Israel.
“I’m pleased by the progress made by both associations in the past months. I remain confident that further important steps will be taken in the near future in order to reach a good solution for the development of football in Israel and Palestine,” said Blatter, who will visit the region once more this month to meet Israeli and Palestinian political authorities.
FIFA vice president Prince Ali of Jordan confirmed that the issue would be addressed fully at this year’s Congress in Sao Paulo and showed sympathy to Rajoub’s claims when speaking to reporters after last month’s FIFA Executive Committee meeting.
“President Blatter cannot resolve the issue politically, but we have to wait and see. I am not promoting or defending any side. Any member association has the right to put forward their grievances,” he said, while also revealing that both Amnesty International and the US State Department are investigating what happened to the two teenagers.
“Nobody is better than anyone else, we are talking about the sport. And I am in a very difficult situation where I have to take two boys from Palestine at my own expense, for treatment in Jordan. These are the two who were shot in the legs and set upon by dogs. Why is this happening?”
The Israel Football Association has done its very best to remain diplomatic on the matter and refused to comment on whether FIFA has handed it an ultimatum when speaking to The Jerusalem Post
“The Israel Football Association is adamant that there is no place to mix politics and sport,” the IFA said. “The Israel Football Association is working continually, professionally and in cooperation with FIFA on this subject.
In the past few months there has been a significant improvement in the cooperation between the associations and that will continue. In the next few weeks FIFA President Sepp Blatter will come to Israel for another meeting in order to continue and discuss the means of action available for the good of football.”
Rajoub’s attempts to expel Israel from FIFA are doomed to failure. Israel fell short of qualification for the upcoming World Cup and may well also miss out on the tournament in Russia in 2018.
However, that will be due to the team’s failings on the pitch rather than Rajoub’s workings. It is safe to say that Israel’s national team and club sides will continue to take part in international competitions long after the Congress in June.
However, Rajoub’s relative success at utilizing sports to delegitimize and place pressure on Israel presents a new challenge to the country’s sporting authorities.
Sports can be used as a weapon in the court of public opinion and Israel will have to learn from this experience to help defend itself better against future attacks.