For Israel, Soccer Becomes A Geopolitical Football
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Soccer has become a point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian soccer officials say Israeli policies harm Palestinian players and the sport's development. They've taken the matter to FIFA - soccer's world governing body. FIFA's president traveled to the region this week and is seeking a way to avoid a vote to suspend Israel from the association. NPR's Emily Harris has more.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Like so many soccer pros around the world, Mahmoud Wadi fell in love with the game as a kid. He's been tapped for the Palestinian national team three times, he says, but Israel never let him leave Gaza, where he lives, for the West Bank where the team is based.
MAHMOUD WADI: (Through interpreter) We waited for days or weeks and never got a no or a yes. When I asked Palestinian soccer officials about it, they said we asked Israel for permits and we got no answers.
HARRIS: He is all for Palestinian efforts to suspend Israel from FIFA competition.
WADI: (Through interpreter) They make things difficult for Palestinian athletes, so we try to make things difficult for them, too. They should feel the pain and helplessness so they understand.
HARRIS: The list of Palestinian soccer complaints against Israel includes restricting players' travel - internally and abroad - blocking visiting competition, taxing donated soccer equipment. The man who now heads the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, used to head the Palestinian security services. He got the vote to suspend Israel on FIFA's agenda.
JIBRIL RAJOUB: Israelis, if they are pressured, they deliver. If they feel that no one's pressuring them, I think they are ready to keep bullying and violating.
HARRIS: But Israeli soccer officials say they don't set the government policies that Palestinians are trying to end. The CEO of Israel's soccer association says 95 percent of Palestinian player travel requests were approved this year. He speculated that those turned down had a background in terrorism or other security issues. The president of the Israeli organization, Ofer Eini, says he wants to help Palestinian soccer.
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OFER EINI: (Through interpreter) We want to embrace the Palestinian football federation. We want to participate with them fully. We want to listen to their problems to help and support them. This is the most popular sport in the world. It cannot be that FIFA will be a field for a political brawl.
HARRIS: Palestinian officials say it's about fair play, not politics, but one complaint most certainly is political. Five Israeli club teams come from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. FIFA President Sepp Blatter says this could go against FIFA rules.
SEPP BLATTER: And this is a delicate problem. This is the problem of these five teams of Israel. They play on territories which are claimed or which are territories of Palestine.
HARRIS: Yesterday, Blatter met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Today, he brought to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his soccer officials Israeli proposals to ease travel restrictions and review Palestinian complaints. It's an effort to avoid a FIFA vote next week on suspending Israel. Blatter said his dream is a match between the national Israeli and Palestinian teams. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.