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Fifa must act over Israeli teams playing and training in occupied Palestinian territory

‘ALL that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football” – so said Albert Camus, author, philosopher and, as it turns out, pretty proficient goalkeeper.

Sport and ethics are important. Symbolism of sport is important, especially internationally with teams often contributing to a nation’s self image. But there is a lot of politics in sport too, arguably too much, but it is right to call out the authorities when they get things wrong.

The National

First published in The National, 20 December 2016.

Right now, Fifa is getting it wrong in the illegally occupied Palestinian Territories, and they need to fix it. I was staggered to find there are six Israeli football clubs playing in the Israeli leagues but based in the occupied territories, playing and training, illegally, on Palestinian land. Fifa allows this to happen while paying lip service to international law and human rights.

The clubs do not pay any taxes to the Palestinian authority, and there is no economic benefit seen by the Palestinians, nor do the teams seek to have any interaction with the Palestinian football teams which, of course, play in their own leagues, on their own Palestinian land but hindered by the illegal Israeli occupation.

Obviously, Fifa rules allow Israel to have football clubs play within its internationally recognised territory. Nobody would deny the Israeli teams the right to play internationally. But these teams are not based in Israel, they’re based on illegally occupied land. When Russia “incorporated” Crimea’s football clubs into the Russian federation, Fifa (rightfully) was quick to act, forbidding the Crimean clubs to merge with Russia’s domestic, legal football clubs. It is testament to the power of sport that Russia promptly fell into line in order to keep its wider Russian Fifa membership. The Crimea remains just as illegally annexed, but at least there are consequences, and Fifa is not complicit in normalising that illegal annexation.

So looking to Palestine, it is a strange situation. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, I initiated a cross-party letter signed by over 60 MEPs in September this year to address Fifa’s contradictions.

The letter is a clear sign that Fifa’s double standard has been noted, not only by us but a wide spectrum of MEPs, Spanish conservatives, German social democrats, French greens, Dutch liberals and others. Although Fifa has committed to respecting international law and human rights, it still allows six illegal Israeli settlements to play in Fifa, in full knowledge that those football clubs are in occupied Palestinian Territories, outside of Israel. I’m not asking Fifa to suspend Israel (though that is a logical next step if we see continued belligerence), just to play by its own rules.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to play football, but Israel cannot use football as an instrument of territorial expansion in the West Bank. This politicises football, and so there’s a clear case for action by Fifa. It’s not just us MEPs who are supporting this call on Fifa. The UN Special Advisor on Sports Wilfried Lemke, along with Human Rights Watch, Israeli NGOs and members of Israel’s peace camp have all bolstered the campaign.

There are strong reasons for us to remind the Israeli government that peace is achievable only by ending, not promoting, military occupation of the Palestinians. The fact that illegal settlements thrive in Palestinian territories is a powerful tool for terrorist organisations to recruit frustrated young men.

It is essential that we act together now to stop this vicious circle. John Kerry the US Secretary of State recently pointed out that there was no willingness, on the part of Israel, to negotiate for peace with the Palestinians. King Abdullah II of Jordan told us that settlements are being used as a recruitment tool by jihadis who seek to exploit this perceived erosion of trust in international law and community.

There is a lively debate on this within Fifa. Their January meeting will discuss the issue and I hope that by getting involved we will kick that up the park a bit. I trust that Fifa will understand it needs to respect international law and its own rules. Change is possible, and I welcome the efforts of Tommy Sheppard and others to address similar concerns to Fifa this month. Fifa has committed to address the issue, and now we’ll see if the January meeting of the Fifa Council will give us the answer we, Palestinians, and international law all need.