by Ismail Patel
As part of the UEFA 2008 qualifiers, England’s football team will be playing Israel on March 24 – just three days after the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Despite protests against the match on the grounds of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian footballers, the FA decided that England will go ahead with the fixture.
Those protesting against Israel’s inclusion in UEFA, which it joined in 1991, do so because of Israel’s compound failure to act in the manner of a sportsman where its Palestinian neighbours are concerned. Israel has deliberately targeted Palestinian football team members and facilities which resulted in the Palestinian side failing to make any progress in this game.
Most recently, in November 2006, the Palestinians failed to play against Singapore in the Asian Cup qualifier due to the singular reason that Israel barred team players from traveling out of Gaza. Earlier in 2006, Israel fired a missile into the densely populated Gaza Strip which destroyed its only football stadium.
Such acts of sabotage thwart all efforts made by Palestinians to progress in this sport in their home territories. The world football organisation FIFA granted Palestine a nation status for the purposes of entering the world cup tournament in 1996. Since then, Israel has at every opportunity attempted to prevent the Palestinian football team from fielding its first choice players at the World Cup qualifiers.
Israel’s targeting of the Palestinian stadium and the restriction of movement has meant the Palestinian team is forced to have its practice sessions in Egypt. The team manager is faced with the challenge of training players on an ad hoc basis, depending on who can manage to circumnavigate the Israeli checkpoints and travel to Egypt, and is also forced to wait until just before the starting whistle to name his squad based on the players present. Of course it naturally follows that the Palestinian side can therefore never experience the luxury of a home game – or an away game – in the presence of cheering Palestinian crowds.
Israel’s deliberate targeting of sports facilities, punitive travel restrictions on Palestinians, general undermining of Palestinian football, and in particular obstructing Palestinians from participating in international tournaments, has to be categorised as racial discrimination.
Faced with such concrete facts, there is dismay that despite the FA’s anti-racism campaign, Kick It Out, which has done great work in the UK since its inception in 1993, it has failed to act on the complaints against England playing Israel and has disregarded heavy UN censure against Israel.
On March 9, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination composed of 18 independent experts, issued damning observations. The committee strongly criticised Israel and emphasised 25 areas of concern. These included the issue of the right of return for refugees, the illegal wall and Israel’s compliance with the convention concerning the rights of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT).
Of the 25 concerns and recommendations, number 16 directly concerns Palestinian sportsmen and women. It states: “Severe restrictions on the freedom of movement in the OPT targeting a particular national or ethnic group, especially through the wall, checkpoints, restricted roads and permit system, have created hardship and have had a highly detrimental impact on the enjoyment of human rights by Palestinians, in particular their rights to freedom of movement, family life, work, education and health.”
Although in an ideal world sports should be kept separate from politics, there is a different reality. Nazi Germany used the 1936 Olympics to showcase Hitler and his fascist ideology, which culminated in the Holocaust and the tragic deaths of six million Jews. Since then, sporting events have been used as a means of political protest, with boycott strategies being used against oppressive regimes, as typified by the civil society movement against apartheid South Africa.
Ironically, it was Israel’s relationships with apartheid South Africa that led the UN passing resolution 39/72C declaring that “the increasing collaboration by Israel with the racist regime of South Africa, especially in the military and nuclear fields, in defiance of resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council, is a serious hindrance to international action for the eradication of apartheid …”
It is easy to understand the call for the boycott of Israel in sporting tournaments until such time that it begins to respect the human rights of Palestinians as stipulated within the Geneva Convention.