When Nouredine Ouldali selects the players for the Palestinian national soccer team, the coach knows he should keep a deep back bench. Players from Gaza are often prohibited from traveling to practice in the West Bank.
Or worse. One athlete was arrested in November for allegedly meeting with a Hamas militant while away on a match in Qatar. Another was killed while protesting Israel’s summer military action in Gaza.
“We are not free to select players,” Ouldali said. “When you select players you have Gaza players, West Bank players, and you must make three or four lists.”
Now, the Palestinian soccer players are striking back at what they say are Israeli restrictions on movement, delays on imported equipment, and tolerance of Jewish racism against Arabs and Muslims. Palestinian Football Association head Jibril Rajoub has filed a motion to suspend Israel from FIFA, the world association that governs soccer.
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FIFA cheif Sepp Blatter, who was in Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday, discourages the move, but Rajoub pledged to press it at FIFA’s upcoming conference May 29.
“I want a solution. I want to end those crimes,” Rajoub said. “I will keep our proposal on the table until our demands are met.”
Suspending Israel from FIFA would bar Israel from prestigious international games, including the World Cup and the European Championships.
Rajoub spoke to reporters in El-Bireh, at a soccer school named for Sepp Blatter and inaugurated in 2013.
To Rajoub’s right were large photographs of Israeli troops decked out in riot gear storming a Palestinian soccer match. To his left were photos of the late Mohammed al Qatari, the soccer player who was killed in August.
Rajoub said his FIFA motion had nothing to do with other efforts to fight Israel in international forums like the International Criminal Court or at the United Nations.
Blatter seemed only somewhat receptive to the appeal. The soccer leader has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, this week in an effort to defuse the contentious issue, which will come up for a vote as he tries to win a fifth term at the helm of the International Federation of Association Football, FIFA by its initials in French.
Blatter recalled that 75 percent of FIFA’s 209 members must vote to suspend Israel. And he urged the Palestinians to create a working group with Israel and FIFA to resolve the grievances, including providing VIP escort service for athletes traveling between Gaza and the West Bank and specialized customs exemptions for soccer equipment.
He also supported excluding from FIFA five Israeli soccer clubs based in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“If there is a vote, there will be a lose-lose-lose situation for everybody,” Blatter said, naming Israelis, Palestinians and the international community as those who stand to be harmed. “We shall avoid that.”
Palestinians have been members of FIFA since 1998. The national team’s two dozen members wore red uniforms embossed with the silhouette of a wide olive tree on their chests as they greeted and posed for photographs with Blatter.
Abdullah Jaber, an Arab citizen of Israel, said he left the Israeli soccer league two years ago and joined the Palestinian league because he felt a glass ceiling as a minority player. Jaber, who speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, said playing as a Palestinian made him proud of his identity but cost him in convenience.
“When I went home and wanted to come back (to Ramallah) in my car, I was stopped at two checkpoints,” he said.
Jaber said he didn’t support throwing Israel out of FIFA but that a change in conditions would make life a great deal easier for his teammates.
Israel has reacted with fury to the Palestinian push. In a Tuesday meeting with Blatter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The thing that could destroy the football association is politicizing it. You politicize it once with Israel, then you politicize it for everyone, and it will cause the deterioration of a great institution.”
Netanyahu said Israel is working on improving conditions, a claim Rajoub doubted.
“We know their mind and we have to be cautious, careful,” Rajoub said. “They are the same people and they have to change.”
Yossi Shivhon played for Israel in World Cup qualifying matches in France, Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Cyprus and Switzerland. He said those games were the peak of his career, and that suspending Israel from FIFA would be devastating.
“If someone would tell me Israel can’t play in the World Cup – it’s like you would say to me, ‘Yossi, all the work you did, all you dreamed, stop it all.’”
Shivhon acknowledged that his Palestinian counterparts face cumbersome Israeli restrictions, but he balked at the idea of making a personal move to improve conditions.
“If a player in Israel would advocate the lifting of restrictions on Palestinian athletes, immediately he would become an enemy of the people,” said Shivhon. “A player wouldn’t risk his reputation on a move like this. It has to come from a much higher level.”
In El-Bireh, coach Ouldali said of the vote to suspend Israel, “It’s a solution. We can’t say good or bad solution. . . . Our footballers must be free.”