Palestinians hope that the United States and Switzerland’s investigations into corruption in FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, won’t obscure the Palestinian Football Association’s call to expel Israel from the body.
Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to Jibril Rajoub, the delegate of the Palestinian Football Association, insisted the discussion of Israel’s violation of FIFA’s laws would not be derailed by the corruption investigation which saw seven senior officials arrested for extradition to the U.S. during a dawn raid on Wednesday at a Zurich hotel.
“The issue of Israeli violation against Palestinian football is part of the agenda. It will be discussed and decisions must be made,” said Abu Eid on Wednesday.
Rajoub has proposed a controversial motion to have Israel suspended, one that is scheduled to be debated on either Thursday or Friday when FIFA’s congress meets in Zurich. In order to pass, the motion would require the support of three-quarters of its 209 member federations. Rajoub’s main contention is that Israel violates FIFA bylaws by preventing freedom of movement for Palestinian soccer players, maintains five FIFA-registered teams in settlements located in the occupied West Bank, and has done nothing to crack down on anti-Arab racist epithets sometimes chanted by extremist fans at games in Israel. The Israel Football Association rejects the charges.
This is the third time that Rajoub had made a motion to eject Israel from FIFA; the other two times he was persuaded to back down by FIFA president Sepp Blatter. But despite Blatter’s visit here last week to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, this time Rajoub is not backing down, despite many “direct and indirect threats” he says he has received and what he describes as increasingly inappropriate treatment he receives from Israel.
“I have been treated in a humiliating way during the past four years. Come with me to the bridge and see how I am humiliated when I travel,” he says in an interview with TIME, speaking about his return from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge, a common land route for Palestinians traveling abroad. The border crossing is controlled by Israel, whom Rajoub also accuses of preventing his players from traveling freely in the Palestinian territories or going abroad, as well as barring players, coaches and training materials from being brought in from overseas.
Rajoub says that he has asked his Israeli counterpart to back him up on his requests, but to no avail. Israel Football Association President Ofer Eini has said that any restrictions faced by Palestinian footballers is a security matter that is beyond his power. Not good enough, says Rajoub.
“The Israeli team has chosen to be a tool for apartheid rather than for peace. Their football association is following the agenda of the extremist right-wing government now ruling in Israel,” Rajoub said at a press conference here Monday as he was preparing to leave for Switzerland. “We believe the Israeli association has to pay a price for systematically violating FIFA statutes. We would have expected the Israeli association to take our concerns seriously, and so they must be solved by the FIFA congress instead. If you don’t see a dramatic move,” he added, “you should see a suspension of the Israeli team by Thursday.”
Israeli officials say politics ought to be kept off the pitch. “The conflict is something that the United Nations and other bodies will deal with, it is not something FIFA should deal with,” says Shlomi Barzel, the spokesman for the Israel Football Association.
“If you want to take each one of Jibril Rajoub’s accusations, I don’t want to say he’s lying but to be polite, he’s twisting to the truth. For one, we’re not the only country in the world dealing with racism. In fact, our national team is a beautiful combination of Arab and Jewish players. This is part of a political agenda by the Palestinians, and football is just one part of it. I can’t say if there is going to be a solution, but we think a big majority of the members will support Israel staying in the association.”
It remains very unclear, however, as to whether Rajoub’s motion has a chance of passing. But he has succeeded in bringing some of the core complaints surrounding Israeli domination over Palestinian lives into the international arena as part of his campaign. Blatter says he opposed the motion because, as he put it, FIFA is the wrong address for political grievances. But he also noted in his visit here last week that he does not have the power to take the motion off the table or otherwise prevent the congress from passing it. In a statement, the organization indicated Tuesday it was looking at the question of whether Israel could actually be considered accountable for violating FIFA statutes.
“The FIFA president will report to the congress on this dossier later this week with the aim of providing a framework for strengthening the development of football in the region,” said the statement. “The executive underlined that a FIFA member association should not be suspended if it has not violated the FIFA statutes.”
With additional reporting from Rami Nazzal in Ramallah