The use of sport to unite children divided by street violence and traumatized by war is a compelling idea. ‘Serious Play: The Goal is Peace‘ is the title of a 7 July Huffington Post article by Alison Craiglow Hockenberry. It opens with the anecdote of a young Jürgen Griesbeck overcoming the murder of his friend in Colombia in 1994 by founding a program called Football for Peace, which brings at-risk kids together to play in Medellín, “one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the world”. Next up is the story of Palestinian children, of whom interviewee Hani Qattan of PACES – the Palestinian Association for Children’s Encouragement of Sports is quoted as saying, “are exposed to drugs, smoking, and… extremism that may result in violence” if they are left idle in the street. Looking at the PACES website homepage, these young girls do not look like potential terrorists, but never mind, they are Palestinian. That is why the Peres Centre for Peace, established in 1996 by current Israeli president Shimon Peres, who has played a prominent role in successive Israeli wars of choice, inflicting death and suffering on countless children, has stepped in with its ‘Twinned Peace Sport School’ to bring over 2,000 Palestinian and Israeli kids together on teams to play and compete.
Hockenberry is not strong on political context, but the two words ‘Israeli occupation’ would have gone a long way to explaining the dark future envisioned for these children. Those words do not appear on the website of the Centre with the oxymoronic name either; instead we are warned of ‘the dire situation that exists in certain areas of the Palestinian Authority as a result of the lack of infrastructural development and continuing conflict’. The Sport School is an initiative for Israeli, ‘Arab-Israeli’ and Palestinian children from the ‘Palestinian Authority’. Fragmentation being a major tool of Israeli control, children from the besieged Gaza Strip need not apply. We learn that ‘most of the participating Israeli communities are within 40 kilometers of the Gaza Strip’, and as such during the 2008/9 Israeli Operation Cast Lead massacre in Gaza, ‘it was forbidden by the Israeli Home Front Command to gather for outdoor activities… Furthermore, demonstrations in the West Bank which resulted in general strikes also limited the amount of activities held on the Palestinian side.’ The clear implication is that it was Palestinian terrorist activity and revolts that threatened to ‘setback’ the program. Last year, Mr Dawood Hammoudeh, a researcher at Stop the Wall NGO, told the Palestine Monitor about the use of sports for pro-Israel propaganda. The Peres Centre organised a mixed Israeli/Palestinian football team to play Barcelona FC in Spain in 2005: “‘It was a response to the Spanish boycott movement of Israeli football, an attempt to improve Israel’s image’”.
A ‘Peace Team’, co-sponsored by the Peres Center and Al Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue, will take part in the Australian Football League (AFL) Cup this August. In preparation, a delegation from the Australian Football League visited Israel this month to meet with the Peace Team, accompanied by Australian media, (which might explain why one of the Team’s sponsors is Sydney’s Israel Travel Centre). The Team will also participate in a welcome function at Marrickville Town Hall on 18 August. This is in spite of the fact that Marrickville Council voted to “in principle” support a Green Party-led boycott of cultural and sporting exchanges with Israeli institutions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent a letter praising the Council for taking a stand, noting that ‘Ten Marrickville councillors – five Greens, four Labor and one independent – voted to support the boycott campaign against Israel last December, provoking condemnation from federal and state politicians, Jewish groups and media commentators. The motion was overturned in April, when all the Labor and two Green councillors withdrew their support.’ Ziyaad Lunat, a member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee (BNC), told me “Al-Quds Association are part of a program that includes a stop-over at Marrickville, Australia, participating in anti-BDS propaganda set up by pro-occupation groups.” As ‘Merc’ says in the post Foul Play, ‘all it took was a little email from a Zionist, and the Victorian Greens (‘we’), without any discernible thought or research, threw caution to the winds and embraced a cheap little Zionist BDS-busting PR stunt.’ I asked Australians for Palestine’s Public Advocate, Samah Sabawi, to comment and she said, “What can be more appealing for those of us in Australia who are passionate about peace in Israel/Palestine than to welcome the AFL Peace Team? The answer: the idea that when members of this team return to their homes, the Palestinian players would not have to go through dehumanising checkpoints, around high barbed wire walls and into Bantustans surrounded and suffocated by a matrix of Jewish-only roads, settlements and security zones.”
Another similarly named program, Football for Peace International (F4P), is involved in a high-profile normalization event on 15-17 September: Sport as a Mediator between Cultures: The International Conference on Sport for Development and Peace will take place on the campus of the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Centre for Sport and Physical Education. It is organized under the leadership of the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Israeli Ministry of Regional Cooperation, and the German Federal Ministry of the Interior: ‘For this event the organising partners have consciously chosen a venue in a region which is characterised by deep-seated social divisions, political imbalances and ethno-religious conflicts.’ That is one way of characterising apartheid. Crucially, this conference is funded by an official Israeli body – two government ministries, which Palestinian civil society has called on international bodies and people of conscience to boycott until Israel complies with international law.
The boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa has been a major source of inspiration in formulating the Palestinian boycott calls and their criteria. The South African apartheid regime and its apologists around the world argued that the anti-apartheid cultural and sports boycott violated freedom of expression and cultural exchange, a charge consistently levelled against the BDS movement. But as the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) makes explicit in its guidelines: ‘events and projects, often seeking to encourage dialogue or “reconciliation between the two sides” without addressing the requirements of justice, promote the normalization of oppression and injustice. All such events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, unless framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are strong candidates for boycott.’
Recently, the British Council in Israel has been boasting of offering transitory fun to children who are daily discriminated against as non-Jews. F4P has been running projects in Israel since 2001. The July issue of the British Council’s e-news announced it was ‘proud to bring together over 1000 Arab and Jewish youngsters from neighbouring communities to take part in this year’s Football for Peace. 60 coaches from the UK and Germany are teaming up with 150 local coaches to run values based sports activities across the country.’ The communities taking part are from the South and Centre of Israel, including Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and the North, including Galilee, Tiberias, Nazareth, Misgav and Sakhnin. The Judaization of the Galilee is an ongoing project of the State of Israel that belies the co-existence narrative. Writing in Haaretz, Shani Shiloh, explained that although a High Court ruling in 2000 does not allow Jewish community settlements in Galilee to reject families on the grounds of “unsuitability” [read, ‘being Arab’]…”these townlets are pretty much left to do as they please”. The Mitzpim project was first conceived in 1979, and called for the establishment of dozens of Jewish settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, to be strategically placed on Galilee hilltops to break the continuity of the Arab population in the region. Today, discussing territorial threats is frowned upon. The issue still exists, says researcher Katz Ben-Sasson, but it has just gone undercover: “What’s happened is that people now say: Let’s all live together with people just like ourselves…. They don’t say, let’s Judaicize the Galilee, as used to be the case.”
According to the Israel Sports Authority, Ministry of Culture and Sport, Football 4 Peace “are here to help us – to move forward one significant step toward a better understanding and a wonderful new bridge of co-existence, peace and harmony between the Arabs and the Jews here in the Galilee region in the State of Israel.” Besides the Israel Sports Authority, who has a vested interest in suppressing the truth, the program’s backers include the British Council, Brighton University’s Chelsea School of Sport (UK), the Sports University in Cologne (Germany), and the European Union. There is a very good reason why the Palestinian boycott of Israel applies to such ‘co-existence’ programs: they take place within a political context completely hostile towards a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis and one based on Israel’s denial of its responsibility for the 1948 Nakba – in particular the waves of ethnic cleansing and dispossession that created this crisis.
In June, the Palestinian sports community wrote to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to register their dismay that ‘Israel has been rewarded for its continued impunity and violent oppression of our people with the honour of hosting the UEFA Under-21 tournament in 2013… The infamous Israeli permit system, which has been used to deny so many Palestinians the right to travel, is reminiscent of the “pass laws” of Apartheid South Africa, and is used to deny footballers the right to travel to international tournaments, or even participate in local practices, in violation of Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions barring collective punishment. The use of overwhelming force in Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-09 was responsible for leveling large swathes of Gaza including the Rafah National Stadium, and killing football players Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate, as well as over 1,400 other Gazans. Israel’s Apartheid Wall, ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, runs its eight- meter-high solid concrete course less than 100 meters away from the Faisal Al Husseini Stadium in Al-Ram, the current national stadium of Palestine. The arbitrary arrest of thousands of Palestinians, including Gazan Palestinian National Team member Mahmoud Kamel As-Sarsak, held without trial or indeed public explanation for their arrest, is a routine tool of Israeli occupation.’
The campaign to move the 2013 tournament away from Israel is called Red Card Israeli Apartheid. Supporters are encouraged to write their own letter to UEFA president Michel Platini, using the e-tool, and join the Facebook page, regularly updated with ideas on how to take action. Readers are also urged to write to the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE), and ask the sports community to boycott the September International Conference on Sport for Development and Peace in Israel. Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, writes that the conference is a “well-intentioned and apolitical endeavour aimed at advancing mutual understanding in the region and beyond”. The involvement of Israeli government ministries gives the lie to his statement. Young people are being used as political pawns to mischaracterize Israeli apartheid and colonization as a symmetric conflict between two nations and cultures.