Why FIFA is getting involved in the West Bank conflict

The Palestinian Football Association has asked FIFA to relocate or bar six West Bank settlement teams, but its Israeli counterpart says that such a move would be mixing politics and sports. 

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israeli players from Ariel Municipal Soccer Club and Maccabi HaSharon Netanya at Ariel Municipal Soccer Club's training grounds in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Sept. 23, 2016.

The Israel and Palestinian Football Associations are at odds over whether six West Bank settlement teams should be banned from competition.

And the Palestinians want FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) to resolve the dispute, either by relocating the teams or barring them from competing in the Israeli soccer league.

The Palestinians have urged the international soccer federation to recognize that the six Israeli clubs – located in the West Bank settlements of Ariel, Givat Ze’ev, Oranit, Ma’aleh Adumim and Tomer – play on fields the Palestinian Authority claims as its territory.

Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president elected in February 2016, has said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a priority of his. And in 2014 the soccer federation banned Crimean soccer clubs from play in the Russian league. But how far should the sports body go in trying to resolve a territorial dispute as complicated as the one between Israel and the Palestinians?

To Mr. Infantino, the issue should be soccer.

But it has “become a political issue, for which the world has not yet found a satisfactory solution. I am always confident that with dialogue, with discussion, and by talking only of sport and by leaving out the politics, we can find a solution,” he said, according to The Jerusalem Post.

FIFA is expected to discuss the matter at a meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, Thursday and Friday. But it is not expected to vote on the issue this week, a senior Israeli official told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Earlier this week, the Palestinan Football Association urged FIFA to ban or relocate the six clubs in the West Bank because, it argues, the settlement teams are playing on Palestinian land, a violation of Article 72(2) of the FIFA 2016 statutes.

The article states “members associations and their clubs may not play on the territory of another member association without the latter’s approval.”

Palestinians argue the settlement clubs are in violation of this article because the United Nations has said the West Bank is “a part of the occupied Palestinian State,” according The Jerusalem Post.

“There are laws that must be implemented,” Susan Shalabi, a Palestinian member of the FIFA Monitoring Committee and PFA, told the Post. “We do not want to suspend the [Israel Football Association] from FIFA, and we do not like to see players deprived from playing soccer, but as I said, the law must be implemented."

But the Israel Football Association argues that the Palestinians and their supporters, including the Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that has advocated for Palestinians, are asking FIFA to mix politics and sports.

Soccer should be “a means for promoting peace and neighborly relations among people and among nations,” said Efraim Barak, a legal adviser to the Israel Football Association, according to BBC.

This isn’t the first time FIFA has been asked to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Christa Case Bryant reported for The Christian Science Monitor in January 2015.

FIFA has tried to address Israeli restrictions on the movements of the Palestinian team, but [Jibril] Rajoub, president of the PFA, says it’s had little impact. "But … we will not raise a white flag. We have to continue with persistence to develop the game, because this is the only way we’re going to corner [Israel],” he says, whipping a red card out of his shirt pocket.

That same year, Mr. Rajoub appealed to FIFA to suspend Israel altogether over the settlement issue. Instead, FIFA created the Monitoring Committee for Israel-Palestine to oversee issues affecting the development of soccer in the Palestinian territories.

The United Nations has also insisted that FIFA act. Wilfried Lemke, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sports for Development and Peace, issued a statement in advance of FIFA’s meeting Thursday and Friday.

“The UN recognizes sport as a fundamental human right and, as such, it advocates and facilitates the realization of such a right by everyone. Without undermining the right of Israeli and Palestinian people to sport, all teams playing in recognized FIFA competitions should abide by the laws of the game,” wrote Mr. Lemke, according to The Guardian.

“I therefore urge a resolution of any disputes in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolutions and FIFA Statutes within a reasonable timeframe. I further call for the free movement of athletes, coaches, and officials in, between, and around Israel and Palestine, to enable them to freely exercise sport and partake in sporting events.”

FIFA has become involved in other territorial disputes around the world. In 2014, UEFA, the European confederation of FIFA, ruled Crimean teams could not play in the Russian league because of the dispute over Crimea.

But FIFA is not a border demarcation body and should not be involved, said Eugene Kontorovich, an expert on international law at Northwestern University Law School.

"That is why FIFA clearly separates any question of sovereign statehood and territory from FIFA membership by not requiring that member federations be recognized states," he wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post. "The claim that the acceptance of the Palestinian soccer federation into FIFA constituted a recognition of Palestine as a state and a recognition of its maximal border claims is unsupportable."

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