Even those who don't understand a thing about soccer cannot ignore its importance in the lives of Palestinians. That's why the much ballyhooed initiative by the Peres Center for Peace - to organize an Israeli-Palestinian soccer team to play against Barcelona, in Barcelona, seems so logical and natural. Furthermore, according to the center's press release, it has been bringing together young Israeli and Palestinian players for the last three years. The television ads about the game send a message of peace. If Israelis and Palestinians can play on the same team, it is a sign that there can be peace between the nations. Shimon Peres, who together with actor Sean Connery is supposed to sit in the VIP gallery, is the most appropriate person to sell that sign.
If this had been initiated and financed by some tycoon or European soccer club, one could say that bringing some Palestinians and Israelis to play on one team would be like pretty cellophane wrapping. A private individual, even a tycoon, doesn't need to know that a young soccer player from Gaza, who can go to Barcelona or Tel Aviv under the cover of a well-publicized project, is not allowed to play in Jenin or Hebron. That's because Israel prohibits Gazans from traveling to the West Bank and vice versa, except in very special cases and after much bureaucratic effort, and sometimes only if the people asking to leave have good connections with institutions like the Peres Center for Peace and former senior officials in the Shin Bet.
A European soccer club is not supposed to go into the exhausting details of the systematic restrictions on movement that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians for the last 15 years. After all, most Israelis don't bother to find out those details. Why should such a European team know about 10 physical therapy students from Gaza who have been waging a legal battle for the right to go to school in Bethlehem, but whom the Israeli authorities refuse to allow out of Gaza for mysterious security reasons? Why should movie star Sean Connery know that the players from Kafr Qasem, for example, can play in Barcelona with their teammates from Rafah and Tul Karm but not in Kafr Qasem, let alone Rafah and Tul Karm? It's not Connery's role to know that Israel prohibits Israelis, including Arabs, from entering the territories of the Palestinian Authority, or that human rights groups and lawyers work for long months and sometimes years trying to get the Defense Ministry and army to allow Palestinians out for medical treatment, family matters, schooling - and are not always successful.
However, when the player behind the game is an institution named after a leading politician, this is no mere wrapping. When the person marketing the game is the same senior politician who for long years helped design policies that impose draconian limits on Palestinian movement - the cellophane is meant to hide, to portray the opposite of reality. That is deception.
Israeli-Palestinian meetings with the potential and basis for peaceful relations take place all the time, and without the public donations and journeys for a soccer game: at the joint demonstrations against the separation fence, in the activities of MachsomWatch and Yesh Din, in the weekly trips by Physicians for Human Rights to Palestinian villages. For an Israeli-Palestinian meeting to carry a sincere message of peace it must begin with one starting point: recognition that these are relations between the occupied and the occupier, and that the termination of that status is the precondition for peace.
The occupation did not come to an end with the signing of the Olso Accords and the disengagement, despite the supreme (and disastrously successful) efforts of Israeli governments to portray matters as such. But it seems the European Union ministers love to love the cellophane and its marketer, and they throw out the bitter fillings. That filling was most recently delivered to them in the detailed report by the consuls in Jerusalem and Ramallah, in which they warn that Israeli policy in Jerusalem, which Peres was a partner in shaping and apparently will continue to be, sabotages the chances to reach a permanent settlement, meaning a peace agreement.
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