The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and Israel Football Association (IFA) have agreed to create a new mechanism to facilitate Palestinian soccer teams' movement, although a long road remains ahead.
Without a peace process, Israeli and Palestinian officials seldom meet. However, the PFA and IFA met for the third time in five months on Dec. 16, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho. FIFA, the global soccer powerhouse, convened the meeting to address Palestinian soccer concerns.
While the meeting did not result in a partial or comprehensive agreement, both parties have expressed hope that a future agreement is possible. Palestinian soccer has suffered from the security situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Soccer players frequently struggle to travel abroad and to and from the West Bank. For example, in 2006, Israel blocked Gazan members from traveling to Uzbekistan to play a World Cup qualifying match after a deadly bombing in Beersheba. In 2007, Israel denied 18 members of the Palestinian national team exit visas to play a World Cup qualifying match in Singapore, forcing it to forfeit. Moreover, the PFA often cannot easily access donated equipment at Israeli ports.
Jibril Rajoub, the chairman of the PFA, told the May 2015 FIFA Congress that he paid $32,000 for $8,000 worth of equipment. Nonetheless, Israel holds that it restricts movement on security grounds.
Rajoub initiated a strategy to bring Palestinian soccer concerns to the international arena in 2010. He first raised the issue of freedom of movement to FIFA, calling on the global soccer organization to find a solution. FIFA subsequently intervened and brokered an agreement in May 2011, establishing a hotline for Palestinian players, coaches and officials to call the IFA, which could contact Israeli security services on its behalf. While the hotline partially mitigated the issue of movement, numerous restrictions stayed in place. For example, in August 2013, Israel temporarily denied Jordanian, Emirati and Iraqi youths entry to the West Bank to compete in the West Asia Football Federation (WAFF) championships.
After the incident Rajoub told Reuters, “At the next FIFA Congress, the PFA is planning to ask for Israel's expulsion in response to its violations against Palestinian sport.” FIFA, fearing the political ramifications of a motion to expel Israel, responded to Palestinian concerns, employing an Israel-Palestine monitoring committee led by Sepp Blatter (the now suspended president of FIFA) and established at the 2013 FIFA congress to find a resolution.
The committee, made up of FIFA, IFA and PFA representatives, agreed to create a new mechanism to facilitate Palestinian movement, Circular 1385. Specifically, the mechanism required the PFA to notify the Palestinian Authority (PA) 35 days in advance of the soccer players traveling abroad. The PA would, then, inform Israeli authorities. The system improved movement for Palestinian players, as Israel approved approximately 90% to 95% of travel requests. But the PFA complained that it still could not tolerate having 5% to 10% of its soccer players, often key players such as the goalie, barred from traveling.
Despite his threats, Rajoub did not ask for the expulsion of the IFA at the 2014 FIFA congress. However, leading up to the 2015 FIFA congress, he followed through on his threats and successfully added a motion to oust the IFA to the congress' agenda. The motion also called on FIFA to address the issue of movement of people and goods, racism in Israeli soccer stadiums and the legal status of five Israeli soccer teams located in West Bank settlements.
Blatter personally intervened, traveling to Jerusalem and Ramallah before the 2015 congress on what he called a “mission of peace.” Israel offered Blatter a proposal, which reportedly included distribution of special ID cards to Palestinian soccer players, coaches and officials to facilitate movement, relaxing of restrictions on soccer-related activities in the West Bank, customs-free soccer equipment imports and the creation of a joint monitoring committee to arbitrate future disputes.
The proposal addressed all Palestinian concerns with exception of the legal status of Israel's five West Bank teams, Beitar Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Ironi Ariel, Ironi Yehuda, Beitar Ironi Ma’aleh Adumim and Hapoel Bik’at Hayarden.
Blatter asked Rajoub to accept the deal, but he refused because it left out the West Bank teams' issue.
At the FIFA congress, Rajoub, under immense pressure from other soccer federations and the FIFA leadership, withdrew the Palestinian proposal to suspend IFA, but pushed along with his other demands. After Blatter asked Rajoub to allow for a FIFA monitoring committee to deal with the remainder of his concerns, Rajoub consented. Thereafter, 90% of the FIFA congress approved the monitoring committee, to be headed by Tokyo Sexwale, a South-African politician and former confidant of Nelson Mandela.
Since the May 29 congress, relations between the PFA and IFA have improved substantially. Israel has largely ensured the movement of Palestinian soccer players and their visiting opponents. In August, Israel allowed Hebron-based Al-Ahli to travel to Gaza for the first time in 15 years to play Gaza-based Shujaiyah. Israel also permitted Palestine to host its first ever World Cup qualifying match against the United Arab Emirates at the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium in Al-Ram. Moreover, Israel OK'd a plan for Saudi soccer players to be transported to the West Bank on Jordanian helicopters.
PFA International Department Director Susan Shalabi, speaking of Israeli efforts since the May FIFA congress, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “Facilitation of movement since the congress is an example of how things can be accomplished.”
She added, “Israel has [undertaken] commendable efforts in the past few months,” but much work remains.
Shlomi Barzel, the IFA director of communications, also told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “Recent measures are a part of goodwill gestures, which can continue permanently as long as security is ensured.”
Sexwale, the FIFA representative of the FIFA monitoring committee, made it clear that no definitive agreements emerged from the meeting. He told a press conference following the monitoring committee meeting, “We need to hold intensive discussion with the relevant Israeli authorities,” recognizing the IFA’s limited influence on Israeli security decisions. Rajoub echoed Sexwale’s remarks, saying, “We recognize the limited role of the IFA, but that does not give Israel the excuse to continue to deprive Palestinian soccer players of their rights.”
Ofer Eini, the chairman of the IFA, did not make remarks at the press conference, but Barzel told Al-Monitor, “We have met with the prime minister’s office and Israeli security services.” He added that he believes both the prime minister's office and security services have and will invest more efforts to resolve the issue of movement of people and goods.
This approach of working with higher authorities may bear success in terms of movement of people and goods because both federations principally agree on that issue. However, employing the same approach to deal with the issue of the legality of the five Israeli clubs from West Bank settlements will likely fail because of the difference of opinion between the two federations.
The PFA and Rajoub want the UN to determine if the Israeli clubs are located on Israeli or Palestinian territory. In contrast, Eini made clear at the FIFA congress that he does not believe the UN should deal with this issue in the context of FIFA, saying, “It is forbidden to mix politics and football.”
The FIFA monitoring committee likely realized that it still has substantial work ahead of it. While parties remain optimistic that an agreement on the movement of people and goods can happen, they still remain divided on the question of the five West Bank settlement teams. Future meetings and the willingness of high-ranking Israeli politicians and security professionals to engage Palestinian concerns likely will play an important role.