The Palestinians lost their bid to oust six West Bank settlement teams, as the 67th FIFA Congress in Bahrain voted 138-50 on Thursday to postpone the issue for another year.“At this time, we can sneak a little smile and go back to enjoying the soccer game,” Israel Football Association head Ofer Eini said after the vote.FIFA’s show of support took place in a country that lacks diplomatic ties with Israel, but which allowed its flag to be displayed along with those of the other 211 FIFA Congress members.“The attitude toward us was warm, sympathetic and inspiring,” Eini said, as he thanked Bahrain for its hospitality.His Palestinian counterpart, Jibril Rajoub, said the vote to delay the issue was illegal and that he plans to appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, headquartered in Switzerland.
“Violations of the statutes and misuse of its legal devices encourage those who allow soccer to be used as a tool to normalize oppression,” Rajoub said.Addressing the congress in Hebrew prior to the vote, Eini said, “Let’s use soccer as a bridge to bring people together instead of inflaming hatred. Let’s hold a soccer match between Palestinians and Israelis that will be called the match for peace. All revenues will go toward building a soccer school for Palestinians and Israelis.“There should be soccer games everywhere,” he told the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.He charged Rajoub with politicizing FIFA by asking it to determine the geographical boundaries of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.“What are you trying to do here, stop six teams of children from playing soccer? How will this resolve the Palestinian problems?” he asked.Rajoub rebutted Eini’s words in a spontaneous, emotional speech, in which he briefly held up a photograph of IDF soldiers pointing machine guns at Palestinians.Soccer cannot serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians as long as Israel exercises military control of the West Bank, Rajoub said.“I have no problem using soccer as a bridge, I believe in that, but first of all treat me as a partner, as a neighbor, let us pave the road for that great target. Let us have reciprocity in the way we treat each other. But as occupier and occupied, I do not think that we can meet,” Rajoub said.Under Rajoub’s leadership, the Palestinian Football Association has called on the international soccer body to consider that Area C of the West Bank is Palestinian territory, and as such rule that Israeli settlement teams cannot play there.He has explained that the presence of six IFA soccer clubs in the West Bank violates FIFA bylaws that prevent the teams from one national football association from playing on the territory of another.In that scenario, the IFA would be in dangers of being ousted from FIFA altogether if it does not drop the settlement teams.“I ask you to vote for my right to develop the game within my recognized borders and for the Israelis to develop the game within their internationally recognized borders, this is a very simple and just request,” he said.Rajoub referenced UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning settlement activity that was approved in December as the basis to his claim that the international community agrees that the West Bank belongs to the Palestinians.Settlements are a war crime, Rajoub said, adding that they are a violation of human rights.“No one can ignore that the frame of reference for everyone here is the UN Security Council resolutions and not the political expansionist plans of Israel,” he said. “You [Eini] are talking about these territories as if they are part of Israel.”He also claimed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had violated FIFA’s rules against governmental inference when he called its president, Gianni Infantino, over the weekend and asked him not to support the initiative.Infantino said that the 37-member FIFA Council, which met to discuss the matter two days earlier, felt that “more time was needed,” but that it could possibly resolve the issue within half a year.He acknowledged that, after five years of wrestling with this issue, it is time for FIFA to act, but added that it seems as if this would be the last delay.Two years ago, FIFA established the Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine, composed of delegations from the IFA and the PFA and chaired by South African Tokyo Sexwale.A report the committee presented to the council on Tuesday was inconclusive, but Infantino said it is possible the council could arrive at a decision in October.Netanyahu lauded Israel’s success in its diplomatic warfare with the Palestinians in international organizations.“We’ve achieved another victory in the battle on our international standing by foiling an attempt to undermine our standing in FIFA,” Netanyahu said.
Meeting with PA strongman Jibril Rajoub in Jericho. Credit: Tovah Lazaroff