The case for a football boycott of Israel is just as compelling as that for football boycott of South Africa. South Africa was excluded from international football for twenty-eight years (1964 to 1992) because of apartheid, rather than for football reasons. South African sport was and is really important internationally while Israeli sport is not. So why bother with a sports boycott? And why football?
First, football is by far Israel’s largest sport, with basketball a distant second and the Israeli government considers football important enough to subsidise.
Secondly and most significantly, international football is an extremely important normalising activity for Israel. Israel has worked hard to host international football tournaments. When it has succeeded, it has been open about the status that it brings to the country. Reflecting this importance, once the Israeli President and Prime Minister both showed up at the welcoming televised press conference for a visiting European football manager!
Thirdly, the Palestinian national football team has provided a huge morale boost for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian football world was delighted that in June 2015 the Gaza and West Bank champions were able to meet as a result of Palestinian pressure. That deserves our strong support.
Fourthly, a boycott would spread awareness of Israeli racism and abuse of Palestinian human rights across the football community worldwide. That football community understands racism. When it fully understands Israeli racism against Palestinians both on and off the field, which it doesn’t at present, it will be a strong supporter of boycott. This will take time, so it is important that we work hard to strengthen current activities.
The UK’s Red Card Israeli Racism campaign’s objective is “the suspension of the Israeli FA from FIFA and UEFA until Israel respects the human rights of Palestinians and observes international law“. Several other activist groups across Europe hold to a similar objective.
Over the past few years activists’ actions have included: demonstrating against Israeli teams playing in European countries; objecting to UEFA tournaments being hosted in Israel (with some success); campaigning and lobbying FIFA, UEFA and national associations; occupying UEFA headquarters to great effect; and simply leafleting at home football matches. Leading footballers, e.g. Eric Cantona, Frederick Kanoute, and leading human rights campaigners, e.g. Stephane Hessell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ken Loach have lent their support. Every opportunity has been taken to educate the football world about Israeli abuse of Palestinians' human rights which has prevented Palestine from developing its football at either national or club level.
At FIFA's 65th Annual Congress in 2015, the Palestinian FA took a big step forward by proposing the suspension of Israel from FIFA until four specifically football-related issues were resolved satisfactorily for Palestinians. It turned out to be a step too far – or at least too soon. FIFA politics obliged the Palestinian FA to settle for a compromise “amendment” which at least kept the topic alive. Congress established an “Israel Palestine Monitoring Committee” to address the four football-related issues where Israel imposes constraints on Palestinian football:
- Movements - Israeli border controls and roadblocks in the OPT make life difficult for all Palestinians. Football has particularly suffered by Palestine being unable to field its best teams at international tournaments over many years. Home teams are often obliged to travel overnight to away games only 50 km away.
- Imports of Equipment - Israel completely controls the movement of goods to the OPT and imposes tariffs. Football equipment has suffered long delays and huge tariffs.
- Racism in Israel - Racism against Palestinian citizens permeates Israeli society in many ways, often officially instigated or encouraged. Football chants of “death to Arabs” echo around the Beitar Jerusalem stadium, with negligible penalties being imposed. That team has never hired a Palestinian citizen of Israel and is firmly sticking to that policy. The Israeli FA has hardly challenged this (Netanyahu is a major Beitar supporter). It has no will to do so. In 2015 it even proposed to split a youth league into two – one for Palestinians and one (predominantly) for Israelis - reportedly in response to requests of parents, although this was stopped after a legal challenge by Adalah.
- Settlement teams - The integration of settlement residents into Israeli society is complete. That includes settlement football teams playing in Israeli youth leagues. Israeli officials consider this acceptable regardless of the illegality of the settlements under international law.
All those four issues above involve Israeli policies which stand at the very core of the regime’s policies of occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.
What is the chance of the Palestinian FA succeeding through the Monitoring Committee? Progress initially was slow, with only one success: in June 2015 the top teams from Gaza and the West Bank played each other for the first time in fifteen years. Even that needed intervention by FIFA as the Israeli border authorities held players up for several days. Since then, further outrages have been committed by the Israelis, including shooting Palestinian players in the foot, tear-gassing at stadia, arrests of players and the destruction of facilities. This does not augur well for the success of the Committee. Therefore the Palestinian FA will need to revert to a formal demand to suspend Israel from FIFA at some point in the future.
In future the Palestinian FA will find it more difficult to call directly for the suspension or exclusion of another member in the Congress. On 26 February 2016 new “Reform” Statutes were agreed by which only the new FIFA “Council” (a revised version of the current Executive Committee) will be able to propose suspension or expulsion to a Congress. So the Palestinian FA will have to persuade the majority of the new Council to call for suspension.
Approaches to the Council should be strengthened by reference to a new report: For the Game. For the World.’ FIFA and Human Rights by Professor John G Ruggie. This was commissioned by FIFA in response to the human rights abuses in Qatar, but the scope of the report is much wider. It invokes UN Guiding Principles and recommends that FIFA adopt a clear and coherent human rights policy and robust implementation arrangements. In summary, the report is clear that FIFA must “embed respect for human rights across the full range of its activities and relationships” (page 9) and it specifically mentions relationships with member associations and other enterprises. Outside contractual agreements the report only mentions the abuse of womens human rights in football, but clearly the report can be used much more widely – in particular to highlight what needs to be done in Palestine/Israel. Reference to this report will enable activists to emphasise that boycott is not about politics (the standard retort of football associations), rather it’s about human rights. (The report can be read in full HERE).
More recent developments concern the six Israeli football clubs that are based in West Bank settlements yet play in the Israeli Football League. International rules are clear that no national association may play in another country without the consent of the other country's national association. FIFA asked the United Nations to advise whether the West Bank was 'another country' and the answer was a definite yes. FIFA has since declined to act out its own policy in the light of this ruling but the issue remains live.
In 2018 the national football team of Argentina cancelled a friendly match against Israel.
Israel's second sport is basketball and there have been several demonstrations at games in Spain and France at least. There has also been boycott action at a sailing event in Malaysia, and there are many other sports where there is Israeli membership of a European federation and where action could be taken.
The football content on this page is mostly reproduced from a May 2016 article by Red Card Israeli Racism whose website is www.rcir.org.uk.