'Because of Jerusalem': The Palestinian Letter Behind the Nixed Argentina-Israel Soccer Match

Palestine Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub asked his Argentine counterpart to call off the game following 'political pressure' by the Israeli government

Argentinian forward Lionel Messi looks on as Jibril Rajoub speaks in Bethlehem, August, 2013
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

The head of the Palestine Football Association appealed last month before his Argentine counterpart to cancel the match against Israel slated for Saturday in Jerusalem. On Tuesday night, the Argentine Football Association cancelled the game, which was to take place in Jerusalem.

In the letter, the Palestinian soccer official stressed what prompted his protest was the Israeli government's decision to move the game from Haifa, where it was originally planned to take place, to Jerusalem.

"The original field of the match was Haifa," said the letter penned by Jibril Rajoub. "However and after political pressure took place from the Israeli government, as it was openly said by Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev, the match was moved to Jerusalem. This is a decision that, given the current context, the Palestine Football Association utterly rejects and condemns."

>> Who Needs BDS: Israel Scores Spectacular Own Goal in Argentina Soccer Fiasco >> Argentina cancels match following Palestinian pressure

Rajoub went on to blame the Israeli government of using the match as a political tool, saying Israel played the match up as part of its 70 Independence Day celebrations. He also dismissed Israel's claims that the game was moved to Jerusalem so authorities could take the Argentine players to see the Old City of Jerusalem, calling it an attempt to normalize illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem.

A poster in the West Bank denouncing the friendly football match between Argentina and Israel, June 5, 2018
HAZEM BADER/AFP

"The match itself is to take place in a stadium built on one of the at least 418 Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel 70 years ago, Al Malha," said the letter.

Sports in general, and football in particular, "should be kept away from politics," stressed Rajoub, claiming Israel was using soccer to whitewash its unlawful actions.

"Argentina, and several other Latin American countries, know very well how football was used by their respective military dictatorships in order to whitewash their grave and systematic Human Rights violations," Rajoub said, giving as an example the six illegal West Bank settlements represented in the Israeli Football League.

The letter concludes with Rajoub citing the immense support the Argentinian national team has in the Arab world. "It would be a shame that this historic relationship would be lost due to the AFA’s acceptance to become part of Israel’s tools to normalize its grave and systematic violations of International Law and Human Rights."

During a press conference on Wednesday, Rajoub said "the Argentine national team realized that Israel is making political use of it and so decided to cancel the game." 

According to Rajoub, any international activity in Jerusalem is unacceptable to the Palestinians, be it in East or West Jerusalem, since Israel claims sovereignty over both. "We say Jerusalem is an issue for a permanent accord. We speak out of the presumption that the legitimacy and decisions of the international community support our stance," he said. 

The exhibition match has been embroiled in controversy since its announcement in March, with pressure by pro-Palestinian groups calling on Argentina to boycott the game, even before its provocative move from Haifa to Jerusalem. The move led Rajoub to petition fans to burn pictures of Argentina striker Lionel Messi and replicas of his shirt if he plays against Israel in Jerusalem.