Iyad Abu Gharqoud: FIFA Should Give Israel the Red Card

The New York Times, 28/05/2015

BUREIJ, Gaza Strip — On Friday, the annual congress of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, is scheduled to vote on a proposal to suspend Israel from the organization. The Palestine Football Association called for this measure because Israel prevents our national team from participating in normal training, travel and competition. If the corruption scandal now enveloping FIFA derails the vote, we will continue to press the issue.

Players, coaches and referees are blocked from moving between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and frequently are barred from tournaments. Israel has also violated FIFA rules by allowing teams from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to play in Israel’s leagues. In addition, the Israeli fans of the Beitar Jerusalem club are notorious for chanting “Death to the Arabs” at matches — racist abuse that the Israel Football Association’s token disciplinary measures have failed to deter.

I have played soccer since my childhood in Gaza. I grew up playing on dusty side streets in the Bureij refugee camp. The sport has given me great joy, and playing as a professional is a job I love. But soccer has also brought me face to face with a harsh international reality: Because Palestinians are stateless, it is at the whim of Israeli officials whether my teammates and I can travel from Gaza to the West Bank to practice and go abroad for international competitions.

Soccer is a beautiful game, but it can be cruel, too — and not just in the near-misses and penalty shootouts. One of the ironies of my professional career is that it has brought me tantalizingly close to Beersheba, the city in southern Israel once known as Bir Saba — an Arab community that was expelled in 1948, my family included.

Today, our players are frequently arrested and detained. Last year, two of our most talented young players were shot and wounded by Israeli forces at a checkpoint. The border police reported that the young men were about to throw a bomb; in fact, they were on their way home from training at our national stadium in the West Bank. According to The Nation, they were both shot in the feet, sustaining injuries that have ended their soccer careers.

Israel has also tried to block players from other countries from entering Palestine to play against us. And during last year’s Gaza conflict, Israeli jets bombed our soccer fields and recreational areas. Israel’s policies have succeeded in making the beautiful game ugly.

The Palestine national team has belonged to FIFA since 1998, but we do not trust the current president, Sepp Blatter, to represent our interests. Past assurances to act have not been honored. He has, in effect, been complicit in Israel’s abuse of Palestinian players: Even last week, he was trying to undermine our call for Israel’s suspension by his shuttle diplomacy with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

He and Mr. Netanyahu are mistaken if they think they can use an international “match of peace” to head off the Friday vote at FIFA’s Zurich congress — even as Israel delayed our players from leaving the West Bank to train in Tunisia. We will choose freedom and equal rights over a public-relations spectacle bringing no substantive change.

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