Israeli football, racism and politics: The ugly side of the beautiful game

Israel’s integration into European competitions, despite its refusal to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, respect human rights and halt illegal settlement, is, according to critics, contrary to sporting values.

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, centre, arrives to take a seat in the grandstand during the match between Barcelona and Real Madrid last October at the Camp Nou. Quique Garcia / AFP
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Israel’s increasing integration into European competitions, despite its refusal to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, respect human rights and halt illegal settlement, is, according to critics, contrary to sporting values and should be met with international opposition of the kind faced by apartheid South Africa, writes Jonathan Cook

A dozen Palestinian teenagers from the West Bank village of Bilin stride forth in FC Barcelona jerseys, looking no different from thousands of other fans of one of the world's leading football clubs. But moments later, in the shadow of the oppressive concrete wall, the group remove their shirts and drape them over razor wire the Israeli army has uncoiled around the village. The youngsters then set fire to the jerseys.

This protest, captured earlier this month on a YouTube video, is one of many by Palestinians and their international supporters as they step up their opposition to Israel's increasing integration into world football, at a cost, say Palestinians, to their own sporting ambitions.

Israel is celebrating its biggest-ever footballing coup this summer, when it hosts a major international tournament for the first time: the European Under-21 Championship. The decision to select Israel was taken by the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa), European football's governing body.

Many observers have been surprised that, at a time when Israel is refusing to revive peace talks, it is being warmly embraced by international football.

"Football is an effective vehicle for Israel to rehabilitate its image with the international community," said Tamir Sorek, an Israeli-Palestinian sociologist at the University of Florida who has written extensively on Israeli football. "A large sporting event is an ideal opportunity for Israel to present itself as a normal country."

It is precisely this scenario that frustrates Palestinians, who fear that Israel is exploiting football as a way to distract attention from its occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the troubling record inside Israel of anti-Arab racism on the terraces and in the dressing room.


The touch paper for the torched jerseys was an announcement by Barcelona's club president, Sandro Rosell, that his team intended to play a friendly against a joint Israeli-Palestinian squad in Tel Aviv in late July to "help the two peoples to reach peace".

FC Barcelona infuriated Palestinians last October when Rosell made Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and held for five years in Gaza, was guest of honour at one of their matches.

Dozens of Palestinian clubs wrote to Rosell: "More than 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners remain rotting [in Israeli jails], many in isolation, many with no visits, many on hunger strike with no attention or care for them to be released."

Rosell revealed his plans for the friendly during a visit to Israel in February, as he was flanked by Shimon Peres, the country's president. Palestinian officials, it appears, were only consulted the following day, when Rosell travelled on to Ramallah.

Jibril Rajoub, a former head of Fatah's security services, and now the president of the Palestinian Football Association, was left looking decidedly uncomfortable at a joint press conference. A short time later, he rejected the proposal. "The conditions are not ready for this idea," he told reporters. "Israel does not even recognise us as a sporting entity."

One sports official in Ramallah, who wished not to be named, was even more forthright: "This proposal is a disaster for us and a dream for Israel. Israel gets to launder its image using the cliché that football can unify people. But the reality is that Israel uses every opportunity to undermine our sporting capacities, just as the occupation is being used to destroy us politically, culturally and economically."

A similar logic to Rosell's - fostering peace through football - appears to lie behind Uefa's decision to stage the under-21 tournament in Israel, from June 5 to 18. Michel Platini, the head of Uefa, wrote to the Israel Football Association (IFA) last year, saying the championship would "be a beautiful celebration of football that, once again, will bring people together".

At other times, Platini has stated, "I don't do politics, I do football", upholding a traditional sporting philosophy encapsulated in the slogan "Keep politics out of sport".

Yair Galily, an Israeli academic who heads the IFA's research unit, said in reality the Uefa decision chiefly reflected the success of Avi Luzon, the IFA president, in cultivating a good relationship with Platini. These ties apparently overrode Uefa's diplomatic and security concerns. Like Rosell and Platini, Galily believes that football has the power to heal divisions, particularly those that have beset Israel's relations with Palestinians in the occupied territories and with its own large Palestinian minority of 1.5 million citizens.

"Football provides a space where people can share a passion that transcends their differences. It is a place where you get to meet the 'other' and realise how much you have in common."


Such notions found their apotheosis in the First World War, when British and German soldiers famously declared a brief truce in December 1914 and left the trenches to play football.

Nonetheless, Uefa's choice of Israel has sharply divided opinion.

Last November, after Israel launched an eight-day attack on Gaza that damaged several football grounds, including the national stadium, 62 leading European footballers signed a statement protesting Uefa's decision.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain's Jeremy Menez were among those who wrote that the tournament would be "seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values", adding that Palestinians "endure a desperate existence under occupation".

The statement also noted Israel's repeated attacks on Palestinian sporting venues, the jailing of its leading athletes and Israeli restrictions on Palestinian teams' freedom of movement.

In their letter to Rosell, Palestinian clubs similarly noted that players had been prevented from attending matches in Mauritania and Singapore by Israel, leading to their elimination from international competitions.

They wrote: "Many times the Palestinian team could not assemble, train or participate in tournaments because of Israeli illegal restrictions on player movement." The clubs added that Israeli actions were "reminiscent of the notorious racist 'pass law' in apartheid South Africa. This is a continuous systematic policy for all of us that has decimated our involvement in international sport."

In a more opaque protest last month, Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world's best-known players, refused to join his Portuguese teammates in swapping shirts with their Israeli opponents at the end of a World Cup qualifier in Tel Aviv. Ronaldo has a long record of supporting Palestinian causes.

The Uefa decision has come at a time when the movement to isolate Israel through a campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions - known as BDS - has begun to capture international attention.

The BDS movement, initiated in 2005, has started to win a growing number of advocates as Israel's unwillingness to countenance a Palestinian state has become more apparent.

Pressure has also grown on Israel since it opposed, along with the United States, a successful move late last year by Mahmoud Abbas to upgrade the Palestinians' status at the UN. Israel has continued to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank despite protests from the international community.

But it has not just been the treatment of Palestinians under occupation that has sparked opposition to Israel's staging of the tournament.

Scenes of extreme racial abuse on Israeli terraces in recent months have also raised questions about the degree to which Uefa's decision squares with its stated commitment to "zero tolerance for any form of racism and discrimination".

Galily accused Israel's critics of double standards, pointing to European clubs' own problems with racism. At separate recent hearings by the Football Association in England, former England captain John Terry and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez were found guilty of racial abuse.

Nonetheless, recent overt displays of racism in Israeli football have unsettled many observers, as has the muted response from public figures and the football authorities.

One premier league club in particular, Beitar Jerusalem, has long prided itself on being the only major Israeli squad never to have fielded an Arab or Muslim player, despite a fifth of Israel's population being of Palestinian origin. Cries of "Deaths to the Arabs!" and "Muhammad is dead!" are commonplace at its matches.

Yoav Borowitz, a sports columnist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, has criticised both Luzon, president of the IFA, for "remaining inert" on Beitar's ostentatious racism and the authorities for failing to enforce anti-discrimination laws. "Have any of Beitar's managers paid a fine or sat behind bars on account of decades of discrimination?"

When in January Beitar finally signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, large numbers of fans vented their fury. The pair were greeted with a torrent of abuse and a large banner declaring "Beitar: pure forever", they have been spat at and they have endured walkouts. Shortly after the signings, the clubhouse was burnt down by a hardcore group of fans known as La Familia.

Last year Beitar also made headlines when hundreds of fans rampaged through a Jerusalem shopping mall, beating Palestinian staff and customers.

Rifaat Turk, the most successful Arab player in Israeli football and the first to be selected for the national team, in 1976, recalled that it "started to rain" every time he stepped on the pitch there was so much spitting.

"Things have not improved. Racism is endemic to the Israeli game. By staying silent, it's as if the [Israeli] football authorities, the government and state officials approve of the racism."


Israel's treatment of Palestinians under occupation - and, to a lesser extent, Palestinians such as Turk with Israeli citizenship - has been compared to apartheid-era South Africa's relations with its black majority.

Its image has not been helped by regular racist comments from senior politicians, such as parliamentary speaker Yuli Edelstein's recent characterisation of the Arabs as a "deplorable nation" and the revelation that Rabbi Shai Piron, the new education minister, had previously issued an edict that Israeli Jews must not sell their homes to fellow Palestinian citizens.

Similarly, public opinion polls show a hardening of attitudes. A survey this month revealed that more than a third of Israelis want Israel either to annex the occupied territories or to continue controlling them militarily while denying the Palestinian population civil rights.

As a result, international recording artists are reported to be turning down invitations to perform in Israel, academic institutions are facing boycotts, and a series of tentative church divestment campaigns have been launched.

Uefa's decision to stage the under-21 championship in Israel has served to expand such actions to include demands for a sports boycott modelled on actions during apartheid-era South Africa.

South Africa, where most sports were segregated based on colour, eventually found itself barred from the Olympics, suspended from world football, and excluded from cricket tours. International rugby teams also came under strong pressure to stay away.

Omar Barghouti, a leading BDS campaigner in the West Bank, admitted the movement had until now been slow to promote a sporting boycott. But, he added, the UEFA tournament had pushed Israel's abuses of Palestinian sports and athletes onto the BDS agenda.

"Just imagine the Commonwealth Games being held in South Africa at the height of apartheid. It is this kind of exceptionalism that Israel expects and receives from Europe," he said. "European politicians simply are not reflecting public opinion."

He pointed to a BBC poll last year that found two-thirds majorities or higher in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Germany viewing Israel's influence in the world as "mainly negative".

The moral case for a boycott has been exemplified by Mahmoud Sarsak, a former Palestinian footballer whose flourishing career was cut short by the Israeli military authorities.

Sarsak was arrested in 2009 as he tried to leave Gaza using the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing point to attend a match in the West Bank. At the time he was a promising 22-year-old midfield player.

Although Sarsak was held in administrative detention for three years accused of membership of Islamic Jihad, he was never charged and his lawyers were denied access to the evidence against him. Such practices have been widely condemned by international human rights organisations.

He was finally freed last July after a 92-day hunger strike. According to Israeli sources, he was released - contrary to Israel's policy with other hunger strikers - following private lobbying by the IFA, itself facing heavy pressure from Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, world football's governing body.

Over the past few months Sarsak has been using his freedom to persuade Uefa officials to reverse their decision.

"Israel works endlessly to repress Palestinian football, just like it does many other forms of Palestinian culture," he said. "Israel does not behave like a normal state where citizens can play sport freely.

"Uefa is legitimising Israel's continued occupation, oppression and apartheid policies. There can be no place in football for segregation and oppression."

Palestine was admitted to Fifa in 1998 but was disqualified from hosting international matches until 2008, when an international stadium was built in Gaza. Sarsak pointed out that, a few months later, during the winter of 2008-09, Israel bombed the stadium, along with the Gaza Strip's other major sporting facilities and the Palestinian Paralympic Committee building. The stadium was attacked again last year.

Sarsak has also highlighted Israel's detention of other leading footballers, including goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and striker Muhammad Nimr, again without charges. Another striker, Zakaria Issa, jailed for 16 years, died of cancer last year, a few months after being released on humanitarian grounds.

Honey Thaljieh, captain of the Palestinian women's team, echoed Sarsak's criticisms of Uefa at a press conference in Doha last month, saying: "It's very hard to understand why they [Israel] have been given such an honour."

Support for the Palestinian campaign has been spreading.

In European countries, Red Card Israeli Racism groups have been established, staging protests at Uefa offices to pressure officials. Last week 40 activists occupied the offices of the French Football Association after its chairman, Noel Le Graet, refused to meet them.

Red Card's biggest protest is due in London on May 24, when supporters will march to the Grosvenor Hotel, where Uefa is due to hold its annual congress.

International football officials have not been immune to these criticisms. In an apparent move to disarm opposition to staging the event in Israel, Fifa announced last month a plan to invest US$4.5 million (Dh16.5m) in Palestinian football.

The money, designed to provide a major fillip for the Palestinian national game, will be used to build a headquarters for the Palestinian Football Association; establish a football academy; and install two artificial pitches. A further $200,000 will be used to rebuild the national stadium in Gaza.

Thierry Regenass, one of Fifa's directors, observed of the massive investment that "football has become a key tool to promote social development in Palestine". Meanwhile, Israel has been seeking to highlight its use of football to build bridges. This month it promoted a "meet your neighbour" tournament near Tel Aviv between young footballers from Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Silvan Shalom, the regional cooperation minister, told reporters: "The tournament will teach Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians to be better neighbours in the future."

But Barghouti warned that the notion of peace-building through sport was an illusion, based on "the false premise that the colonisers and the colonised, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the 'conflict'".

Sorek, of the University of Florida, agreed, arguing that such initiatives "legitimise the status quo" rather than "addressing the issue of how to achieve justice for all".

In recent weeks, several power imbalances have been on show.

Last month, two Druze men were arrested when they protested against plans by the IFA to stage "friendly" matches between Israeli and local Druze teams in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory annexed by Israel in violation of international law.

And Israel disrupted the first official Palestinian marathon last weekend by preventing all 22 runners from Gaza from travelling to Bethlehem in the West Bank to take part.

Few expect Uefa to cancel the tournament at this late stage. But there is a debate about whether the struggle to stop the competition might yet become a defining moment for the BDS movement, galvanising support for a sports boycott and possibly leading Israelis to conclude that they are becoming a pariah nation.

This month, shortly after revealing that he had only months to live, following a diagnosis of cancer, prolific Scottish author Iain Banks wrote an impassioned plea for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. However, he warned that a sports boycott would be less effective in Israel than in apartheid-era South Africa.

"Rugby and cricket in particular mattered to them [white South Africans] profoundly, and their teams' generally elevated position in the international league tables was a matter of considerable pride … A sporting boycott of Israel would make relatively little difference to the self-esteem of Israelis in comparison to South Africa."

But Barghouti believes football matters more to Israelis than many assume. "BDS is not magic. The effect is slow and cumulative. Just as in South Africa, boycotts have a gradual psychological impact on the oppressor nation, weakening its resolve."

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, and the author of Disappearing Palestine.