RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian grievances against Israel are familiar ones: hampering travel, blocking import of equipment, rampant racism and the treatment of settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli response is also a repeat: security concerns, mostly.
But this round of the conflict is over the soccer pitch. The Palestinians have placed a proposal to suspend Israel from FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, on the agenda for the organization’s annual congress in Zurich on May 29.
It would be a severe sanction against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and one with wide resonance on both sides of the unofficial border, for unremitting devotion to soccer is something these bitter enemies deeply share. Intense lobbying campaigns are underway.
“Soccer is a language that is known all over the world,” said Dima Yousef, 21, who plays midfield on the Palestinian national women’s team. “It’s easier for people to get connected with something that deals with soccer, versus a political point.”
It is, of course, as much about politics as sport, a novel arena in the Palestinians’ broader campaign to leverage membership in international institutions to punish Israel and build their sovereign state. Israel argues that soccer should be a bridge for coexistence, not a diplomatic weapon: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tuesday that “the thing that could destroy the football association is politicizing it.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s statement came as he met with Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, who on Tuesday set off on the well-trod path of shuttle diplomacy, promising to bring a message from the Israelis to his Wednesday session with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and other officials here in Ramallah.
Mr. Blatter, whose four terms as FIFA’s chief have been marred by controversy, is trying to broker a compromise to avoid a contentious vote at the congress, where a Jordanian prince is among those challenging his re-election. He declined to say what, if anything, the Israelis had offered as possible concessions or compromises, but said Mr. Netanyahu had accepted his invitation to host a “match of peace” between the Israeli and Palestinian national teams in Switzerland.
“I am here on a mission of peace,” he said at an evening news conference in Jerusalem, where a FIFA emblem proclaiming “My game is fair play” sat on the dais. “This situation cannot continue.” Noting that “there are a lot of countries in the world where there is a political conflict,” Mr. Blatter added, “There is no end to this.”
A FIFA suspension would mean that Israel’s national team would be barred from international competitions, including the World Cup and European championships, and that its professional clubs could not participate in lucrative competitions like the Champions League in Europe.
FIFA has suspended members in the past, including apartheid-era South Africa and war-torn Yugoslavia, and last year UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, forced Russia to drop plans to incorporate Crimean teams claimed by Ukraine. FIFA has also prevented Gibraltar, a British territory long claimed by Spain, from joining.
Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestine Football Association, cited these precedents in making his case. Israel, he said, has violated FIFA rules by allowing five teams from West Bank settlements to play in Israeli leagues even though they are in occupied Palestinian territory.
Players, coaches and referees are blocked from traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in and out of the area for training and tournaments, Mr. Rajoub added, and fans of the notorious Beitar Jerusalem team routinely chant “Death to Arabs” at matches.
“The suspension is not the target; the target is to end the suffering, the grievances, of the Palestinian football family,” he told reporters at a briefing here in Ramallah on Tuesday.
“We are not using violence; we are using a legal leverage tool, FIFA statutes,” he said. “They have to pay the price of their racist, apartheid policies against us.”
But Rotem Kemer, chief executive of the Israel Football Association, said that more than 95 percent of Palestinian requests for player movement had been approved so far this year, and that those rejected “probably had some background involving terrorism.”
Mr. Kemer complained that he could not control Israel’s security protocol, and that his organization had unwillingly and inappropriately been turned into “some kind of foreign office” scrambling to head off a diplomatic crisis.
“We have found ourselves now as some kind of hostage in the fight against our government,” he told reporters in a conference call organized by the Israel Project, an advocacy group. “It’s nothing to do with sport, and they are trying to abuse the FIFA status and punish the I.F.A., which has nothing to do with this case.”
Israeli officials said that bad behavior like that of Beitar’s fans was rife among soccer fans worldwide, and that they had done more than other countries to crack down. They did not address the question of the settlement teams.
In recent days, a few leftist Israeli columnists have called on FIFA to “show Israel the red card,” as Gideon Levy of Haaretz put it. “A soccer ban doesn’t kill anyone,” Mr. Levy said. “When the price becomes intolerable, more and more Israelis will awaken from their indifference.”
Each of FIFA’s 209 members has a single vote in the congress, regardless of the size of the country or its soccer program, and Mr. Blatter said he had no power to veto decisions or remove items from the agenda. He said suspension required 75 percent approval, though the Palestinians plan to make a legal claim that a simple majority should suffice.
Mr. Rajoub tried at the last two FIFA congresses to have sanctions placed on Israel, but Mr. Blatter and then a task force were instead charged with resolving the problems. Now, Mr. Rajoub said, “we will never, never accept any compromise.” He promised to pursue the case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport if the congress did not act.
FIFA’s website lists 1928 as the founding year for both Israeli and Palestinian soccer — back then, in the mandate era, Arabs, Jews and Britons played on the same teams. Israel has long had a thriving soccer scene, now with 40,000 registered members in nearly 1,000 clubs across the country.
Palestine’s federation joined FIFA in 1998 and has about 20,000 players, including professional leagues for both men and women. In January, the men’s national team competed in the Asia Cup for the first time.
But officials complain that Gaza’s fields have been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, and players shot or imprisoned. Ms. Yousef said she was all packed for a training trip to Brazil a few years ago, but blocked at the last minute because of a problem with her ID.
Mahmoud Salah, a midfielder on the Palestinian men’s top team, said he was one of several players, wearing official warm-ups emblazoned with the Palestinian flag, detained and interrogated for hours upon returning from a tournament in Iran this spring.
“They ask me questions like how long have you been on the team, where are you from in the West Bank, where were you and what were you doing there,” said Mr. Salah, 21, who lives in Al Amari Refugee Camp and earns about $2,000 a month playing. “I’m only a soccer player. I love the ball — there’s no reason for me to sit three, four hours to be humiliated and harassed.”
An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of a competition for professional clubs in Europe. It is the Champions League, not the Championship League. The article also referred incorrectly to UEFA. It is the governing body for soccer in Europe, not the European Union’s soccer organization.
Reporting was contributed by Rami Nazzal from the West Bank, Myra Noveck and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem, and James Montague from Skopje, Macedonia.
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(via NY Times)