Israel Trying to Block FIFA Move to Oust Six Settlement Teams

According to FIFA statutes, member states can't establish teams in an occupied area; Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rajoub met recently with the second most powerful person in the Soccer organization, who reportedly was receptive to his approach.

Players from Ariel Municipal Soccer Club, who are affiliated with Israel Football Association, train ahead of their match with Maccabi HaSharon Netanya at Ariel Municipal Soccer Club's training grounds in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel September 23, 2016.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Israel is trying to block a Palestinian initiative in FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, to achieve the suspension of six soccer teams from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, officials in Jerusalem said.

The concern in Israel is that an upcoming FIFA council meeting in mid-October could decide to bring the issue to the organization's congress next May.

The officials said that Israel was taking quiet diplomatic measures with a number of countries in order to fend off such a decision.

The measures were agreed at a meeting of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office last week. The council is coordinating Israel's response to the Palestinian move with the Foreign Ministry, the Culture and Sports Ministry and the Israel Football Association.

Following the meeting, the Foreign Ministry sent a cable to dozens of Israeli embassies around the world with an urgent request for information on the Palestinian move and proposing measures to block it.

“At this time the Israel Football Association has no information about the expected agenda of the FIFA council and if a move is being planned behind the scenes [on the matter of the settlements,]"  the cable stated. 

"From the information we have, we understand that committee chairman [former South African government minister Tokyo] Sexwale is considering raising the matter and might recommend a means of resolving the dispute. In an extreme case, he will recommend suspending teams from over the Green Line that play in the Israeli league.

"The FIFA Council has the authority to recommend a discussion of the matter in the FIFA Congress in 2017 and even temporarily suspend teams or the association until a decision by the congress,”

The Palestinians tried to advance a resolution to expel Israel from the organization at the 2015 FIFA Congress in Zurich. After intensive diplomatic efforts, a compromise was reached to establish a committee, headed by Sexwale, to address a number of issues.

The issues included restrictions on the movement of Palestinian soccer players in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and the particularly contentious issue of the six teams from settlements playing in the Israeli league.

Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub announcing a decision to postpone the Palestinian cup final, July 30, 2016.
Hazem Bader/AFP

A clause in the FIFA statutes states that a member country cannot establish soccer teams in an occupied area of another political entity and make them part of its own league without the consent of the political entity that country is occupying.

That clause was identified by Palestinian Football Association chairman Jibril Rajoub, who Israel believes is coordinating the activity by politicians and civil society in Europe.

Rajoub visited Zurich a few days ago for talks on the matter with senior FIFA officials. An Israeli official said that, according to information reaching the Foreign Ministry, Rajoub met with newly-appointed FIFA secretary general, Fatma Samoura, who is considered to be the second most powerful person in the organization.

Rajoub is reported to have called on Samoura to “show Israel a red card"  at the FIFA council on October 13, due to the activity of the settlement teams in the Israeli league.

An official in Jerusalem said the Foreign Ministry and other government entities have seen increased efforts by the Palestinians over the past few weeks regarding the suspension of the six teams.

The six teams, all of them lowly-ranked, are from the settlements Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Givat Ze’ev, Oranit and settlements in the Jordan Valley.

The Palestinians want Israel to be expelled from FIFA, if it does not agree to suspend the teams from its soccer association,.

Travel restrictions on Palestinian soccer players have been considerably reduced since the Sexwale committee was established. However, little progress has been made on the issue of the six teams.

When Sexwale was in Israel three months ago, he had planned to meet with Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev on the matter. But he was late for the meeting and it did not take place.

The official added that  a few dozen members of the European Parliament sent a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino two weeks ago, demanding that he work to have the six teams from the settlements suspended.

A few days ago, the international NGO Human Rights Watch released a report stating that the activity of the settlement teams in the Israeli league broke FIFA rules and its commitment to human rights. The official said this was the first time a significant international human rights group had joined the Palestinian campaign on this issue.

According to an Israeli official, Samoura agreed with Rajoub: “At some point, FIFA will have to make a firm and unequivocal decision in light of the continued infractions against its laws and toward one of its members,” she said, according to the information that reached Jerusalem.

In its cable, the Foreign Ministry instructed embassies in countries whose football associations are represented on the FIFA council to contact association representatives and ask them to oppose the holding of a debate on the issue on October 13. The message that the embassies were instructed to convey was that politics and sport should not be mixed, meaning that the debate over the settlement teams was invalid to start with.

"It must be stressed that a solution to the conflict and political disagreements should not be the subjects of debate by sports organizations," the cable said. "It should also be emphasized that the essence of sport is to reduce tensions and serve as a means of promoting peace between people and nations.

"It needs to be said that players of many different nations and all religions play together in full cooperation and brotherhood in the football teams that are part of the association, without reference to the geographic locations of the clubs."

Israel's position, according to the cable is that the settlements from which the teams come are not in areas controlled by the Palestinians, as Rajoub maintains, but in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli security and civil control, according to the Oslo Accords.

The ambassadors were asked to stress that the Palestinian efforts in FIFA are part of the Palestinian strategy to "internationalize" the conflict, instead of holding direct negotiations, and that FIFA cannot be party to them.