Israel’s war on Palestinian sports is as old as the Israeli state itself. For Palestinians, sport is a critical aspect of their popular culture and, since Palestinian culture is a target in the ongoing Israeli attack on Palestinian life in all its manifestations, sports and athletes have been purposely targeted. Yet world football’s governing body FIFA, along with other international sports organizations, have done nothing to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against Palestinian sports.
Now that FIFA, along with UEFA, the International Olympic Committee and others, have swiftly joined the West’s anti-Russia measures as a result of its invasion of Ukraine, Palestinians and their supporters are puzzled. Years of relentless advocacy of sanctions on Israel at international sports competitions have paid little or no dividends. This has continued to be the case, despite Israel’s intentional targeting of Palestinian stadiums, travel restrictions on athletes, cancelation of sporting events, and arrests and even killings of Palestinian footballers.
Many Palestinians, Arabs and international activists have already highlighted the issue of Western hypocrisy in the case of the military occupation of Palestine by apartheid Israel following the start of the Russian operation in Ukraine. Almost as soon as the attack began, an unprecedented wave of boycotts and sanctions of everything Russian, including music, art, theater, literature and, of course, sports, kicked in. What took the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa decades to achieve was carried out against Russia in a matter of days.
Palestinians are right to be baffled, since they have been repeatedly informed by FIFA that sports and politics do not mix. Marvel at this hypocrisy to truly appreciate the Palestinian frustration: “The FIFA Council acknowledges that the current situation (in Palestine and Israel) is, for reasons that have nothing to do with football, characterized by an exceptional complexity and sensitivity and by certain de facto circumstances that can neither be ignored nor changed unilaterally by nongovernmental organizations such as FIFA.” That was, in part, the official FIFA position as declared in October 2017 in response to a Palestinian request that the “six Israeli football clubs based in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories should either relocate to Israel or be banned from FIFA-recognized competitions.”
Two years later, Israel callously canceled the FIFA Palestine Cup that was meant to bring Gaza’s top football team, Khadamat Rafah, and the West Bank’s FC Balata together for a dramatic final. Palestinians see football as a respite from the hardships of life under siege and occupation. The highly anticipated match would have offered a moment of precious unity among Palestinians and would have been watched by a large number of people, regardless of their political affiliation or geographic location. But “for no apparent reason,” as reported by US magazine The Nation, Israel decided to deny Palestinians that brief moment of joy.
Even then, FIFA did nothing, despite the fact that the event carried the governing body’s name. Meanwhile, outright racist Israeli football teams like Beitar Jerusalem are allowed to play unhindered, travel unrestricted and allow their fans to voice their favorite racist chants as if racism in sports is the accepted routine.
FIFA’s double standards are abhorrent, to say the least. But it is not the only hypocrite. The International Paralympics Committee last week went as far as denying athletes from Russia and Belarus the right to compete at this year’s Winter Paralympics in Beijing. The decision was justified on the basis that having these athletes participate would jeopardize the “viability” of the events and, supposedly, make the safety of the athletes “untenable,” despite the fact that the Russian and Belarusian athletes were, due to the political context, set to take part as neutrals.
Not only are Israeli athletes welcomed in all international sporting events, any mere attempt by individual athletes to register a moral stance in support of the Palestinians, such as by refusing to compete against Israelis, can be very costly. For example, Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine and his coach were last year suspended for 10 years for withdrawing from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to avoid meeting an Israeli opponent. Similar action has been taken against football players and teams for displaying solidarity with Palestine, including when fans have waved Palestinian flags or chanted for Palestinian freedom.
Mohammed Aboutrika, the former captain of the Egyptian national football team, was shown a yellow card in 2009 for merely displaying a shirt that read, in both Arabic and English, “Sympathize with Gaza.” For that supposedly egregious act, the Confederation of African Football warned him against mixing politics with sports. Aboutrika commented last week that the “decision to suspend Russian clubs and teams from all competitions must be accompanied by a ban on those affiliated with Israel, (because Israel) has been killing children and women in Palestine for years.”
It must be stated that the hypocrisy here goes well beyond Palestine and Israel into numerous situations where those demanding justice and accountability are often affiliated with poor nations from the Global South or causes that challenge the status quo, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
But there is much that can be done aside from merely delineating the double standards or decrying the hypocrisy. True, it took the South African anti-apartheid movement many years to isolate the racist government in Pretoria on international sports platforms around the world, but that seemingly impossible task was eventually achieved.
Palestinians, too, must now use these channels and platforms to continue pushing for justice and accountability. It will not take days, as was the case with Russia and Ukraine, but they will eventually succeed in isolating Israel. As it turns out, politics and sports do mix after all.