Gaza Tensions Force Spectator Ban at Israel-Sweden Tennis Match

Anti-Israel demonstrations expected in Swedish city of Malmo as Israel, Sweden face off in Davis Cup.

A Davis Cup tennis match between Sweden and Israel will go ahead without spectators after an attempt to move the venue to Stockholm fell through, organizers said Tuesday.

They cited security concerns for the closed-door policy in the city of Malmo because anti-Israeli demonstrations are expected during the best-of-five series on March 6-8. But the volley of words between the two Swedish cities, which comes after the United Arab Emirates stopped an Israeli player attending a tennis tournament in Dubai, has an unmistakable political dimension.

Malmo, Sweden's third largest city, has a left-leaning local government and a large Muslim minority. Its leaders have strongly criticized Israel over the Gaza invasion, and some have called for the Davis Cup match to be dropped altogether.

Stockholm, on the other hand, has a center-right majority that is more pro-Israeli. The Swedish capital on Monday offered to step in as an alternative venue, saying it was better prepared to guarantee security for the match.

The idea was dropped, however, when Stockholm officials realized they wouldn't be able to get organized in time for the Israeli team's Sunday arrival, said Madeleine Sjostedt, Stockholm's vice mayor in charge of culture and sports.

"I'm very disappointed. We worked intensely with this for a few days but had to give up," she said, adding that Malmo's decision was political.

Malmo Mayor Ilmar Reepalu insisted the decision to bar spectators was solely based on security concerns. He noted that pro-Palestinian groups had disrupted a recent pro-Israel demonstration by throwing bottles, eggs and fireworks.

"It shows the tensions that exist after the conflict in Gaza," Reepalu, of the left-leaning Social Democrats, told The Associated Press by telephone.

The Davis Cup match isn't the first sports event marred by political protests against Israel.

Israeli player Shahar Peer was denied a visa last week to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships, prompting the WTA to fine organizers a record $300,000. At the time, organizers said they feared fan anger over Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza would spill into riots if Peer were to play.

The United Arab Emirates later granted a permit to Israeli player Andy Ram to compete in this week's men's tournament.

In January, an Israeli basketball team fled to the changing room as hundreds of fist-pounding Turkish fans protested the violence in Gaza. A pro-Islamic group earlier set an Israeli flag on fire outside the arena.

The Israeli Tennis Federation lamented that the Malmo match would be played behind closed doors.

"It's terrible that they are trying to mix politics with sports, especially in an enlightened country like Sweden," federation chairman Michael Klein said last week.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said it was up to local authorities to decide on the security arrangements for the match.

"If local authorities decide to prevent spectators from attending, what can I say?" Palmor said. "We leave it to local security authorities to do what they think is best."

This will be the second time a Davis Cup match will be played in an empty arena in Sweden. In 1975, two years after a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet against the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, Sweden played Chile in Bastad and no spectators were allowed.