Israeli, Palestinian Olympic Officials Meet Ahead of 2012 London Games

IOC brokers 5-hour gathering discussing, among other issues, allowing athletes, coaches more freedom to travel from the West Bank, Gaza Strip.

Israeli and Palestinian Olympic officials have met to begin building closer ties and help send stronger teams to the 2012 London Games.

IOC President Jacques Rogge in West Bank, October 5, 2010

IOC President Jacques Rogge brokered a five-hour gathering at Olympic headquarters Thursday that also addressed allowing athletes and coaches more freedom to travel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The parties hailed the positive and constructive meeting.

They agreed to return to Lausanne in March before presenting proposals to the Israeli and Palestinian governments.

As a first step, Palestinian athletes were promised IOC funding and Israeli
support to prepare for the London Olympics.

Palestinian officials have blamed Israel in the past for routinely hindering the movement of Palestinian athletes, particularly those from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel denied the accusations.

Last October, Rogge expressed concern Tuesday over "obstacles" facing Palestinian athletes and urged Israel to grant them free movement regardless of politics.

Making his first trip to the West Bank, Jacques Rogge said there is a "unanimous voice" in the sporting world for governments to allow athletes to travel freely.

"The International Olympic Committee is a sport, not a political or sovereign organization," he said. "I will try to persuade the people who we speak to ... so we will focus our efforts on removing the obstacles."

Rogge was meeting with Palestinian leaders and watching an exhibition football match in the West Bank on Tuesday before heading to Israel on Wednesday for talks with President Shimon Peres and other dignitaries.

In the midst of a four-day visit to the region that also included a stop in Jordan, Rogge said he would raise the movement issue with the Israelis.

Bilal Abualarish, spokesman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee, said the football team's 30 players live in various countries and struggle to enter the West Bank for training or games. The committee has a hard time planning training schedules because they don't know whether players will arrive.

Palestinian Olympic officials say that some 70 percent of athletes work in various Palestinian security services, and therefore are regarded with suspicion by Israeli authorities and often face travel restrictions.

Guy Inbar, a defense ministry spokesman, said Israel does not target athletes specifically, but sometimes raises concerns about individuals. An official from the Shin Bet security agency, speaking on condition of anonymity under agency regulations, said Israel had approved special travel permits for Palestinian football players in recent weeks.