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Palestinians Bid to Boot Israel From International Soccer Over Sporting 'Apartheid'

VICE News talked to Palestinian soccer players as officials try to get Israel removed from international competition. Israel, meanwhile, has claimed this is a "shameless" politicization of sports.
Image by Rob Griffith/AP

Palestinian officials are calling on nations worldwide to show Israel the red card for unsporting behavior, including "racist" and "apartheid" treatment of athletes, and boot it out of international soccer contests.

Speaking at press conference in Ramallah on Wednesday, Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, called on FIFA member countries to back an upcoming vote at the annual congress of soccer's governing body to suspend Israel from the organization.

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The ballot, set to take place on May 29, needs to secure the support of at least three-quarters of 209 member countries in order to pass. If it does, Israel will be excluded from some of the world's top competitions such as Euro 2016 and the Champions League. Only two countries, apartheid South Africa and Slobodan Milosevic-era Yugoslavia, have ever faced such suspensions before.

Both Israel and Palestine first registered teams in 1928 after soccer was introduced to the region during the time of the British Mandate. Back then Arabs, Jews, and Britons used to play on the same teams but the sport has since become marred by conflict, with Palestinian footballers being arrested and frequently prevented or delayed in travelling to matches and training sessions.

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In an incident that attracted international attention Mahmoud Sarsak, a player for the Palestinian national team, was arrested in 2009 by Israeli security forces while travelling from his home in Gaza to a training session in West Bank. Accused of planting a bomb, Sarsak, who maintained his innocence, was held for three years without trial and went on hunger strike for three months before finally being released following protests by football fans around the world, including Celtic in Scotland.

Travel restrictions, often imposed at the last-minute, have often led to a late scramble to get a team together after delays at borders. And on at least one occasion a lack of players even led to the Palestinians forfeiting a game. In a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Singapore the team were forced to accept de-facto defeat after being unable to get together 11 men.

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Other accusations leveled against Israel by the Palestinians ahead of the FIFA vote include: the destruction of sports facilities in Gaza by Israeli forces during last summer's war, preventing the import of sports equipment, allowing football teams from settlements on occupied territories in West Bank to play in the Israeli league, and failing to curtail racist fans — particularly Beitar Jerusalem supporters who frequently chant slogans such as "Death to Arabs" during matches.

Rajoub, a high-ranking member of the Fatah political party who previously served as an advisor to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, called Israel's policies "racist" and said that it was time for FIFA members to "raise the red card," and tell the country "either abide by the rules, or you are out."

'So if they decide you can't pass then what can you do? You're stuck. They use any opportunity to frustrate and block us, even sport.'

Israel has countered the allegation by accusing the Palestinians of a "shameless" politicization of sports. "We're being kept hostage in a fight against our government," Rotem Kemer, head of the Israeli Football Association, told reporters on Tuesday claiming that his organization has been turned into "some kind of foreign office."

Pointing to an above 97 percent approval rate for travel permit requests by Palestinian footballers, Kemer claimed that those rejected "probably had a background in terrorism."

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Since the announcement of vote Israel has met with sports ministers and heads of football associations in more than 100 countries in a bid to stay off the FIFA blacklist.

"This high-level lobbying shows how acutely embarrassed and worried the Israelis are," James Montague, an award-winning author of two books on football and conflict, told VICE News. "In a situation where Palestinians have few opportunities to seek redress, football is a way to reach whole new audience; politically and culturally this is a huge PR coup."

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Indeed, the Palestinians' attempt to suspend Israel from international soccer competition has attracted so much attention that it prompted FIFA head Sepp Blatter to make two-day "peace mission" to the region in an attempt to quell tensions. Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday after a meeting with the Israeli prime minister the football top-dog called the steps being taken by the Palestinians as "very unusual" and "very serious."

For teenagers in the West Bank and Gaza, where youth unemployment stands at around 35 percent and recreational facilities are limited, sports are one of the most popular pastimes.

Mahmoud Salah became a Palestinian star when he was recruited to the national team eight years ago aged just 14. A fan of Manchester United and Barcelona, he grew up kicking a ball around the run-down backstreets of Al-Mari refugee camp in Ramallah, one of the West Bank's poorest neighborhoods.

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As a young person Salah says he wasn't political, and football was a way to "dreaming" and "escaping the stress of living under occupation." Now as a professional, he says Israeli restrictions are affecting his ability to reach the top of his game. "When my teammates from Gaza can't join training or can't travel to a match it affects the whole team," he told VICE News.

On other occasions Salah says that he and other Palestinian players have been interrogated, harassed, and humiliated by Israeli security forces at the border when they were travelling abroad for matches.

The problems of occupation are not just faced by faced by national-level players, however. Imad Qaraqra, director of Al-Bireh youth club, told VICE News said that soccer games between teams inside the West Bank are regularly canceled after players and referees are delayed or prevented from passing Israeli checkpoints. "So if they decide you can't pass then what can you do? You're stuck. They use any opportunity to frustrate and block us, even sport," he added.

Back in 2008, a UN-backed project to modernize the youth club's football ground from a dirt pitch into a proper stadium was subject to a eight-month freeze after Israeli Jews living on a neighboring settlement complained the development posed a threat to their security and held protests outside the facility.

"I was boiling with rage," Mustafa Tahen, who began playing football at the Al-Bireh ground as a young boy and now at 16 years old competes in the Palestinian national team told VICE News. "They [the settlers] have built on our land, but they wouldn't let us build a football stadium."

Construction was eventually resumed after a lengthy legal battle but not before significant costs were incurred by the delay, including wasted building materials and a loss of income from renting out the pitch.

"Palestinian players are shot at, arrested, and denied freedom of movement," Qaraqra told VICE News. "Football is a world language and fans now see the reality of life under occupation. If Israel doesn't want to play by the rules, then its time to kick them out."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem