Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Sports and Violence: A Red Card for Israel

Foreign Policy In Focus

It’s World Cup season. But far from the favelas of Brazil, another drama is playing out in the annals of international soccer.

In an effort to bolster its global status, Israel has placed a bid to host the 2020 European Championship, known as Euro 2020. That means that one of the world’s largest international soccer tournaments might be coming to Jerusalem.

Hosting mega sporting events is an increasingly popular way for countries to build a positive international image, but it can also provoke criticism—as seen in Brazil, where the eviction of impoverished residents to make way for stadiums has prompted massive protests, as well as in Qatar, where the preparations for World Cup games have led to worker deaths and labor unrest. Israel, which has been accused of violently targeting Palestinian soccer players, is no exception.

Sport and Politics

The Euro is one of the world’s most competitive international soccer tournaments, second only to the World Cup. The winner is crowned the best national team in Europe, home to some of the strongest sides in international soccer. As the Arab boycott has precluded Israel’s participation in the Asian Confederation, Israel has been considered part of Europe’s soccer confederation since 1994.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the tournament, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, has decided to depart from tradition. Rather than hold the tournament in one host nation as usual, UEFA has decided to choose 13 host cities throughout the member countries. In September UEFA will select these cities from the existing 19 bids. That makes Israel, which hosted the UEFA Under-21 European Championship in 2013, a strong contender.

But the Palestinian Football Association and Palestinian solidarity activists have already raised opposition to Israel hosting the tournament. A recent letter in The Independent—signed by Desmond Tutu and Alice Walker, among others—called for UEFA to leave Jerusalem off the list of host cities as long as “Israel continues to perpetrate its devastating military occupation of the Palestinian territories, flouts international law, totally disregards UN resolutions, and imprisons hundreds of Palestinians, including children, without charge.”

We like to believe that during large sporting events, like the Olympics or World Cup, political conflicts should take a backseat to what happens on the field—politics and sports, some say, don’t mix. But for Palestinian soccer players, separating the realms has proven impossible.

Unsporting Behavior

Since FIFA recognized the Palestinian national soccer team in 1996, Israel has mixed politics and sports in a lethal way, targeting Palestinian players, coaches, and facilities. In ruthless attacks largely unreported in the United States, Palestinian footballers have been arrested, maimed, and killed by Israeli Defense Forces. Thanks to Dave Zirin of The Nation, many of these incidents have been reported to wider audiences.

The most recent incident was last February’s brutal shooting of two young players, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, at a checkpoint in the West Bank. Both players were severely injured, with one reportedly suffering 10 bullet wounds to his feet—a strong indication that the Israeli soldiers knew that the teenagers were footballers and targeted them accordingly.  When they attempted to return from Jordan, where they had received medical treatment, they were arrested without charge—a practice known as administrative detention.

These young players are hardly the only Palestinian soccer players to languish in administrative detention. Goalkeeper Omar Khaled Abu Rouis and talented striker Mohammed Sadi Nimr were arrested in 2012. Another national team star, Zakaria Issa, was jailed for allegedly being a member of Hamas in 2003. Sentenced to 16 years, he was released after nine years because he had a terminal illness. The most famous incident of unlawful detention is the story of Mahmoud Sarsak, who was jailed for over three years. Despite never formally being charged with a crime, Sarsak was unable to communicate with friends and held in solitary confinement for much of his time in prison. After a three-month hunger strike Sarsak was released, but only after his plight came to the attention of FIFA and the world players’ union, FIFPro.

Other players have also fallen victim to violence. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008, three soccer stars, including one national team player, were killed within 72 hours of each other by Israeli missile strikes on their homes. Other attacks have targeted Palestine Stadium in Gaza, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2006, only to be rebuilt with FIFA funding after the international soccer association found that the attack was “without any reason.” Israeli explosives leveled the stadium once more in 2013, when the IDF again claimed that missiles were being fired from the field. FIFA has pledged to rebuild the stadium yet again.

Despite these hardships, the Palestinian team continues to play. Or at least, it tries to. The team has traditionally recruited players from the diaspora due to the difficulty Palestinians face in getting permission to leave the occupied territories. In 2007 the team was even forced to forfeit its first-round World Cup qualifier in Singapore after 18 players were refused permission to travel by the Israeli government.

These incidents are not random, but suggest a concerted effort to target one of the prominent symbols of Palestinian nationhood: the national soccer team. By preventing the Palestinian team from participating in matches abroad or maintaining a stadium for home games, Israel is purposefully undermining Palestinian national pride and unity.

Politics by Other Means

Sports reflect political realities. But like any cultural institution, they can become tools for political agendas and violence. Like the soccer riots in post-Mubarak Egypt or the famed 1969 soccer war between El Salvador and Honduras, problems arise when soccer becomes a continuation of politics by other means.

The reflection of politics in soccer, however, adds meaning to the richest moments the game has to offer. In Spain, the annual meetings between Real Madrid and Barcelona, known as El Clasico, are not fully comprehended without understanding the symbolic importance of FC Barcelona in Catalan autonomy and the importance of Real Madrid to the Franco regime (a story Franklin Foer explains in his excellent book How Soccer Explains the World). Likewise, the Falklands Crisis of 1982 adds context to the 1986 Argentina victory over England, a famous international match known for Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God.”

Perhaps one day, Israel and Palestine will meet on the pitch in a legendary rivalry informed by politics and history. The game would be bitter, tackles would be hard, and perhaps a few inappropriate chants would emanate from the stands. But that would be a vast improvement over the indefinite detentions, shootings, and unwarranted destruction of facilities Palestinian footballers endure today.

Until that day, Israel must be held responsible for its actions. If UEFA selects Jerusalem in September, the choice can only be seen as an implicit endorsement of these tactics.

Noah Habeeb is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the more effective U.S. lobbying outfits, aims to ensure that the United States backs Israel regardless of the policies Israel pursues.


Erik Prince, former CEO of the mercenary group Blackwater, continues to sell security services around the world as controversies over his work—including in China and the Middle East, and his alleged involvement in collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia—grow.


Gina Haspel is the first woman to hold the position of director of the CIA, winning her confirmation despite her history of involvement in torture during the Iraq War.


Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) is a pressure group founded in early 2019 that serves as a watchdog and enforcer of Israel’s reputation in the Democratic Party.


Richard Grenell is the U.S. ambassador to Germany for the Donald Trump administration, known for his brusque and confrontational style.


Zalmay Khalilzad is Donald Trump’s special representative to the Afghan peace process, having previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush.


Robert Joseph played a key role in manipulating U.S. intelligence to support the invasion of Iraq and today is a lobbyist for the MEK.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure mandating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Saudi/UAE-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The vote marks the first time since the War Powers Act of 1973 became law that both chambers of Congress have directed the president to withdraw American forces from a conflict.


The Trump administration’s failed “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and North Korea begs the question what the US president’s true objectives are and what options he is left with should the policy ultimately fail.


In the United States, it’s possible to debate any and every policy, domestic and foreign, except for unquestioning support for Israel. That, apparently, is Ilhan Omar’s chief sin.


While Michael Cohen mesmerized the House of Representatives and President Trump resumed his love affair with North Korea’s Kim Jong, one of the most dangerous state-to-state confrontations, centering in Kashmir, began to spiral out of control.


The Trump administration’s irresponsible withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement undermined Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and emboldened hardliners who accused him of having been deceived by Washington while negotiating the agreement. However, the Iranian government could use the shock of Zarif’s resignation to push back against hardliners and take charge of both the domestic and foreign affairs of the country while Iran’s foreign opponents should consider the risks of destabilizing the government under the current critical situation.


Europe can play an important role in rebuilding confidence in the non-proliferation regime in the wake of the demise of the INF treaty, including by making it clear to the Trump administration that it wants the United States to refrain from deploying INF-banned missiles in Europe and to consider a NATO-Russian joint declaration on non-first deployment.


The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.


RightWeb
share