soccer - Sharon Bukov - February 22 2011
Maccabi Haifa’s Mohammad Ghadir, center, celebrating his goal in the second half of a victory over Hapoel Petah Tikva. Photo by Sharon Bukov
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Forget refugees, borders and security: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have just got itself a new core issue.

At the heart of this latest dispute is soccer player Ali Khatib, who was, until a few days ago, a member of the Jabal Mukkaber team, which plays in the Palestinian league. Khatib, however, is set to sign for Israeli Premier League side Hapoel Haifa in a move that his coach at Jabal Mukkaber, Samir Issa, describes as "a flagrant violation of FIFA rules."

Three days ago, Issa discovered that Khatib had, apparently at his own initiative, turned up for a tryout with Hapoel Haifa. He so impressed Haifa coach Tal Banin that he was offered a contract on the spot.

"Khatib is our player," Issa told Haaretz Tuesday. "He has a legally binding contract and he is not available to sign for any other team."

Issa said that if Haifa goes ahead with its plan to sign his player, he would lodge an official complaint with FIFA. "Just because there are no official relations between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer associations," he said, "does not mean that Israeli teams can poach players willy-nilly."

Because the Israeli and the Palestinian Authority soccer associations do not communicate with each other, no agreements are in place governing player movements.

Haifa has promised to look into the matter, but insisted yesterday that Khatib - who also plays for the Palestinian national team - told them that he is not under contract and is therefore free to move. Rather, the player says, he is still registered with his former team, Hapoel Shfaram.

"That's simply not true," says Issa. "We have been playing Khatib's salary and rent. He's our player and he can't just decide that he wants to move."