Middle East

Fifa crisis: Palestinians press to show Israel red card

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Media captionThe Palestinian Football Association has requested a Fifa vote on 29 May

The football bureaucrats of the world were probably expecting to make global headlines as they gathered for the Fifa Congress in Zurich.

But the news so far has been bigger - and worse - than they can possibly have imagined.

The US investigation into corruption at the highest levels of the world's most popular game will have far-reaching implications for how the game is run - and who runs it.

As news of arrests at the top of Fifa began to sink in, the organisation said it was planning to go ahead as scheduled with the election of its president - which was expected to result once again in a kind of coronation for Sepp Blatter, the great survivor of world sports administration.

But there's another item on the agenda too - one that may still be troubling delegates far into the future when Mr Blatter is eventually gone and the corruption story has played itself out.

The Palestinian delegation wants Fifa to suspend Israel from world football.

'Internationalisation'

This is not just about sport of course.

The Palestinians are pursuing a strategy they call "internationalisation" - which means bringing their grievances against Israel into as many international arenas as possible. And arenas don't come any bigger than Fifa.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Palestinian FA wants to "end the suffering and the humiliation of the Palestinian footballers"

The issue has been raised in previous years but some sort of deal was worked out to prevent the issue from coming to a vote.

This time the head of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), Jibril Rajoub, says nothing will persuade him to remove the request from Fifa's formal agenda. There won't be any backroom deals - there will be a vote.

"I am going to end the suffering and the humiliation of the Palestinian footballers," he told me. "It is our right."

The Palestinians believe their case is strong.

They complain about how police and army checkpoints which restrict freedom of movement around the occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank hamper the ability of players and officials to get to games.

The point is illustrated in a video presentation in which a middle-aged Palestinian called Farouq Assi is captured on the cameras of a human rights activist blindfolded, handcuffed and in custody at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption The detention of football referee Farouq Assi provoked Palestinian outrage

It's not a rare event. It's in the presentation because Mr Assi is a football referee and he was on his way to take charge of a game in Jericho when he was detained. The match was abandoned.

Palestinian territory is divided into two parts - Gaza and the West Bank. Israel controls all movement into and out of the West Bank through a series of checkpoints and it maintains strict controls at its crossing with Gaza through which players and officials have to travel to play West Bank teams.

Bringing politics into football

Israeli sports officials argue they have no control over the policies applied at those checkpoints by Israeli security and intelligence agencies.

Mr Blatter made a trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories ahead of the Fifa Congress in what appears to have been a failed attempt to stop the issue from being pushed to a vote.

Not long after he left an incident at an Israeli-controlled border crossing with Jordan illustrated the problem.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Suspension would mean Israeli teams would not be able to take part in the Champions League and Euro 2016

The Palestinian national team was leaving through the checkpoint on its way to play an overseas fixture - it flies through Amman in Jordan, a short drive across the desert rather than from Israel's main airport in Tel Aviv.

As they were leaving there were reports that one of their players, Sameh Maarabe, had been arrested by Israeli officials.

Israel explained later that Maarabe had been convicted last year of using an overseas trip to smuggle money and messages back into the West Bank on behalf of the militant group Hamas.

To Palestinians that's a story about the harassment of a footballer - to Israelis it's about issuing a warning about re-offending to someone who has a criminal record and who happens to be a footballer.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Beitar Jerusalem has often attracted criticism for the racism of its nationalist fans

There are other grievances too - including the presence on Occupied Palestinian Territory of teams from Jewish settlements which are allowed to play in the Israeli league.

But Israel feels it has a positive story to tell about sport.

There are Arab players in the Israeli national team and at most top-flight clubs - although there is an exception in that Beitar Jerusalem has often attracted criticism for the racism of its nationalist fans.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Israeli footballer Yossi Benayoun says the dispute has "nothing to do with sport"

Former English Premier League star Yossi Benayoun, who's arguably Israel's best-ever player, told me: "Sport is one of the only things that brings people together. In my experience I played with Muslims, Christians and any other religion and it's the same in Israel - during my time in the national team we always played with Arab players and it was the same for them.

"I hope it doesn't come to this decision, because it's nothing to do with sport."

Two-thirds majority

For now the Israeli sports authorities have left their argument at that, but not everyone in Israel has been so diplomatic.

The well-connected Israeli legal campaign group Shurat HaDin, for example, has drawn attention to Jibril Rajoub's membership of the central committee of the Fatah movement, which has an armed wing.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Fifa president Sepp Blatter (left) insists Israel has not breached Fifa's statutes

It has found several militaristic quotes from Mr Rajoub talking about the Palestinian conflict with Israel and has written to Fifa demanding that he should be expelled, instead of the Israel Football Association (IFA).

Their letter is an illustration of the fear inside football that giving in to one expulsion request is bound to trigger others - what if Ukraine should demand the suspension of Russia over the annexation of Crimea for example, when the Russians are scheduled to host the next World Cup?

Within the world of sport there's always a tendency to keep difficult issues at bay by arguing that sport and politics don't mix - but of course in extreme cases they do.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Israel's FA says it is doing what it can to resolve problems faced by Palestinian football teams

Both apartheid-era South Africa and the now-vanished Yugoslavia led by Slobodan Milosevic were expelled from international bodies - the Palestinian chances of success at Fifa will depend on persuading enough delegates that their case matches those precedents.

Israel for now seems confident - partly because Sepp Blatter has clarified that the rules for suspension require a 75% majority, and partly because, in the words of the Israeli expert on international law Alan Baker, this is "a familiar grievance in a new forum".

The dramatic arrests which overshadowed the start of the Fifa Congress may have shifted the spotlight from the Palestinian case for now but this is an issue that won't go away.

Whatever happens to the proposal in 2015, there is nothing to stop the Palestinians from putting it back on football's agenda in the future.

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