Today, June 10, representatives from football associations around the world will gather in Sao Paulo, Brasil, for the 64th FIFA congress. During last year’s congress, FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter received a mandate: solve the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian associations over restrictions of movement for Palestinian players.
“It’s a difficult issue and Mr. Blatter is doing all he can to solve it. I have no doubt about that,” says Susan Shalabi, Director of the International Department of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA). Still, the PFA is considering calling for Israel’s expulsion from the FIFA as a sanction if Blatter reports he was not able to meet his mandate.
Restriction of movement is the only issue the PFA was able to bring to the table in a compromise with the Israeli Football Association (IFA). For Shalabi, the task force place last year to solve the matter is working as a “plastic surgeon for the ugly face of the occupation.”
For the families of Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya and Johar Halabiya, two football players shot earlier this year and awaiting trial after forty days of administrative detention, the question of whether Israeli is expelled from FIFA is secondary: their sons will most likely remain in jail either way.
A replay of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations
During last year’s congress, the PFA requested measures against Israeli violations of its players’ rights: restrictions of their freedom of movement, restrictions on the construction of facilities, the detention of material at customs – including shipments sent by the FIFA, and the arrest, shooting and killing of Palestinian football players.
An Israel-Palestine task force was created to solve these issues. Yet, the discussion was reduced solely to the freedom of movement. Shalabi explains, “It was some sort of compromise we had to do for the sake of good will (…). We thought that if we succeed on this, then there is hope for the rest.”
A direct liaison was also established between the Israeli and Palestinian administrations to solve the matter. The Palestinian Civil Administration is coordinating with the COGAT, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. The COGAT is a military body. “They only follow the Ministry of Defense in Israel. Nobody can control them, they are completely free, they have their own rule. They decide their own policies and the policies that they decide are the policies of the occupation (…),” explains Shalabi, “the civil administration in Israel doesn’t question that. Sometimes we get the impression that they don’t dare questioning that.”
Blatter recently concluded a tour to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan: “While there is still some work to do, there are some results, which we can build on. I’m confident football will help building bridges between people of Palestine and Israel,” he declared after the visit.
Yet, the results mentioned by Blatter have not been obvious on the field. The 2nd al-Nakba International tournament held at locations across the West Bank in May was supposed to feature teams from Pakistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Jordan, but the Iraqi team was forbidden by Israel to enter, as was the Pakistani head coach and a few of the main Jordanian players. “Which, tell me, which international team agrees to this? That their team plays without their head coach?” asks Shalabi. She adds, “and Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, so there is no security reason!”
This week, PFA deputy secretary general Mohammad Ammassi was also prevented from traveling to the FIFA congress from Gaza. In a statement, the PFA declared that, “Israeli authorities have nothing against him, which clearly makes this rejection a temperamental and arbitrary measure that does not help the efforts to find a solution to the situation of Palestinian football.”
During Sepp Blatter’s last visit, the PFA requested sanctions against Israel if it doesn’t comply with FIFA statutes. Article 3 of the statutes state that:
Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.
Ironically, the Israeli government used this same article in March this year to request Russia’s expulsion from FIFA for its “military occupation of sovereign Ukraine.” The request may not have been entirely genuine: if Russia was expelled from the 2014 World Cup in Brasil the replacement team would have been Israel.
Sepp Blatter’s task therefore seems like an impossible one: “When Blatter came here, he got guarantees from our political leadership. He went to Israel and he got nothing : they even refused to say the word Palestine,” says Shalabi.
Expelling Israel from the FIFA: “What benefit will that brings us ?”
On June 8 Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya celebrated his 18th birthday in administrative detention. He was also supposed to take his final high school exams this week and go study sports. His cousin, Johar Halabiyeh, and him were part of the Palestinian national football team. Earlier this year, on January 31, they were both shot near the military base located over Abu Dis, across the Separation Wall from Jerusalem.
As recalled by Nasser, Johar’s father, the two boys were coming back from their training in al-Ram, near Ramallah, and walking toward their friend’s house a hundred meters from the military base. One of them was apparently lighting a cigarette when the soldiers started shooting: they thought he was lighting a bomb. According to testimonies no bomb was found – or detonated as the military claimed they did afterwards,– and the two young men were not wearing gloves or masks as it is generally the case in this situation, but the soldiers maintained their testimony.
Halabiya was shot three times in the legs and Halabiyeh eleven times – ten times in the legs and once in his left hand. After launching dogs on them and butting them with the back of their guns, one soldier put his foot on Halabiya’s leg and pulled it backward toward his head, breaking it. They then dragged the two boys inside the camp before transferring them to the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem an hour later.
Handcuffed in their hospital beds and prevented from seeing their mothers after the first day of hospitalization even though they had a permit, they were freed after four days. Thanks to an agreement between PFA’s president Jibril Rajoub and the Jordanian authorities, they then spent around two weeks in Jordan for treatment. They were arrested by the Israeli authorities as they crossed the border back to the West Bank and have been held in administrative detention ever since. They are now awaiting for trial.
This is not an isolated story. In March, 18 year old student and football player Saji Darwish was shot dead by an Israeli sniper next to the Beitin checkpoint near Ramallah. An Israeli military spokeswoman reported that he was participating in stone throwing against the checkpoint. “Some people say he was going to see his club mates but most probably he had a flock of sheep he was herding and taking back home,” recalls Shalabi, “whatever it was, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and the sniper shot him. The ambulance was not allowed to go pick him up and he died on the way. Let’s imagine he was throwing stones. Is it a reason enough to shoot him?”
According to Shalabi, these boys were not targeted because they were football players, but rather because they were Palestinians. For her, this should be sanctioned. “We are not here for vengeance, to punish anybody, we just want to enjoy the same rights everyone else is enjoying. Including the Israelis. We don’t want them to suffer as our players are suffering.”
As far as Shalabi is concerned, allowing the Palestinians to play freely should be a matter of security for the Israeli authorities: “One of the purpose of establishing a good sport structure is to give these young people hope. And the Israelis are not helping. When they shoot these people, when they restrict their movements, what alternative do Palestinian people have? They are the ones working against their own security.”
Lana, Halabiya’s mother, turned her son onto football when she arrived with her husband from Abu Dhabi. It was a way to keep him active, and out of trouble. Nasser, Johar’s father, was a player in Abu Dis’ team himself, and then a manager of the city’s team that Johar and his younger brother play on. For him, expelling Israel from the FIFA or not is not the issue: “I need my son here. What if they expel Israel from the FIFA? What benefit will that bring us? Will the FIFA free our sons ?”