FC Barcelona president Sandro Rosell (right) with Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu.
(Photo: Miguel Ruiz/FCB)
On Saturday 25,000 jubilant Palestinians clad in the Barca Blue and Red gathered at Dura stadium Southwest of Hebron, occupied Palestinian territories, to catch a glimpse of the members of the Catalonian football giant. Sunday, on the opposite side of the wall, FC Barcelona players strolled out unto the Tel-Aviv pitch accompanied by Palestinian and Israeli teens, each adorned with tri-lingual shirts with the words peace written across their chests.
This so called “tour of peace” has been billed by Barcelona as an attempt to use the common love of football in both Israel and Palestine to “build bridges” between the two nations embroiled in a protracted conflict.
“FC Barcelona, with the full cooperation and support of the Government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, will host two football clinics for peace”….“Barcelona has become a channel for dialog between Israelis and Palestinians, the club is Committed to continuing the ongoing efforts to bring peace to the region” According to a statement on teams website.
The tour has garnered international attention; many lauding the collaboration between the two governments and the symbolic importance of the visit, which comes at the heels of the U.S. brokered peace talks that began last week.
Yet behind the glamor and fanfare that accompanies the likes of Messi, and Neymar lies another issue. That these kinds of events that encourage dialogue and reconciliation between the two sides without addressing the requirements of justice serve to promote the normalization of the status quo in Palestine. This reality was acknowledged in part by the decision made by Ibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian football Association, to reject the proposed peace match between a joint Israeli-Palestinians team and Barcelona.
“Because of the behavior of the Israelis, that targets sports and athletes, our movement is limited,” Jibril Rajoub said in May. “I believe that it’s too early to talk about a joint match because of the discriminatory behavior, even on the playing field, which is being practiced by Israel.’’
The appeals for dialog, of for “building bridges” between the two parties fails to acknowledge the asymmetries as play here, where any semblance of balance is disingenuous. It is Palestinian football that is under siege, its players frequently arrested, denied visas, and forced to deal with the draconian security measures imposed by the occupation. It is in Gaza that football stadiums are targeted by the Israeli military (April 1, 2006, and November 19, 2012) and where three Palestinian footballers were killed in their homes by Israeli bombs in a 72 hours period in 2009. As Palestinian midfielder Roberto Kettalun told Mondoweiss “we all face difficulties that come from the political situation, its part of our life.”
Football in Palestine is political, its contentious and it reflects the lived experience of life under occupation. While Barcelona’s “tour of peace” may be portrayed as a good will gesture, the ability of sports to transcend conflict is duplicitous in Palestine, where the players and team are denied the very ability to succeed.
Take for example the 2006 World Cup qualification games. Palestine placed first in their group after defeating Iraq and Chinese Taipei. However shortly before the third match against Uzbekistan, the Israeli ministry requested through FIFA the immediate return of 10 players from Gaza, destroying any chance of success as they were barely able to scrape together a team.
This is not an isolated event, Palestinian players, particularly those from Gaza are discriminated against, barred from entering the West Bank for practices and games. A recent example came in July 22, 2009 when Mahmoud Sarsak was detained while travelling from Gaza to the West Bank for a game, even though he had obtained permission to do so. Sarsak was held without trail or charges, accused of involvement with militant group Islamic Jihad (which he denied) and held under the controversial Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law. Sarsak was finally released in 2012 after a 96 day hunger strike. As his teammate Robert said “the discrimination my teammates suffer is overwhelming. They treat them like animals.”
Barcelona’s visit is part of a larger European complicity in the normalization of occupation in the oPt. This was expressed most recently by the decision by EUFA to hold its –under 21 competition in Israel. The decision has gained widespread condemnation. Nobel laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Arch Bishop Desmond tutu said “European football’s governing body, UEFA, has been accused of showing “total insensitivity” to the “blatant and entrenched discrimination” of Palestinian sportspeople by Israel.” Tutu added “UEFA should not allow Israel to use a prestigious football occasion to whitewash its racist denial of Palestinian rights and its illegal occupation of Palestinian land.”
So what are we to make of the comments made by Barcelona. There attempt to create “a channel for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, ” a trip “aimed at strengthening institutional ties with the two communities and build bridges of dialogue for peace.” This kind of rhetoric is troubling if not arrogant. Palestinians are less worried about the building of bridges than the relentless construction of walls, checkpoints and settlements that dominate their land and lives.
As the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PCACBI) states, “Cultural events and projects involving Palestinians and Israelis that promote “balance” between the “two sides” in presenting their respective narratives, as if on par, or are otherwise based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the “conflict,” are intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible.”
Peace is the ultimate goal, but the recognition of the asymmetrical nature of this conflict, the disproportionate suffering of one side, and the colonial relationship between the two parties is a precondition for peace. FC Barcelona has power and media prestige, and their immeasurable popularity in both Israeli and Palestine does provide the club an opportunity to move from empty statement to action: Stop playing in Tel Aviv.