The head of European soccer's governing body told a senior Palestinian Authority official that Israel is in danger of eviction from UEFA if its government does not change its policies limiting the freedom of movement for Palestinian athletes, according to reports in Palestinian and Arab media outlets.
During a late September meeting in the West Bank with Palestinian Olympic Committee chairman Jibril Rajoub, UEFA President Michel Platini reportedly pledged to exert his influence in removing Israel from European competition over the authorities' refusal to permit members of the Palestinian national soccer team to attend games due to "security reasons."
"We accepted Israel into Europe and it must abide by the laws and regulations which require freedom of movement for players," Platini is said to have told Rajoub. "If Israel does not do this, it will bear the serious consequences and it is liable to be thrown out of Europe."
A UEFA spokesperson said the organization cannot confirm or deny that the statements were made since it does not comment on private conversations held between two officials.
Sources in both UEFA and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, said that officials are angered by the difficulties that Israel imposes on athletes in the Palestinian Authority.
The president of the International Olympic Committee expressed concern yesterday over "obstacles" facing Palestinian athletes and urged Israel to grant them free movement regardless of politics.
Palestinian officials say Israel routinely hinders the movement of Palestinian athletes, particularly those from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel denies the accusations.
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 soccer match in the West Bank before heading to Israel today 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 freedome of movement issue with the Israelis.
Bilal Abualarish, spokesman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee, said the soccer 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. The captain of the Palestinian soccer team, Ahmed Kashkash, a Gaza native, was unable to play at yesterday's match because Israeli officials would not allow him to enter the West Bank from neighboring Jordan, he said.
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.
Rajoub said yesterday that the Palestinians were also encountering difficulties building stadiums and importing sporting goods because of Israeli restrictions. The Israel Olympic Committee says it would be pleased to help their Palestinian counterparts overcome any bureaucratic hurdles, but said the Palestinians have not reached out to them.
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. Rajoub himself is a former West Bank security commander.
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