Fifa must ban these Israeli settlement teams, if it wants a level playing field
As a follower of football, I am passionate and partisan when supporting my team. But, like all fans, I am infuriated when I sense that a referee is not applying the rules impartially. At the heart of the beautiful game is that simple principle of fairness: that we are all playing on a level playing field.
Holding true to that fundamental has enabled sport to play a leading role in addressing wider societal inequalities – as, for example, when the sporting boycott of South Africa played such a key role in addressing apartheid. There’s no reason it shouldn’t do likewise in Palestine.
Tuesday’s welcome intervention by Wilfried Lemke, the UN special adviser on sport for development and peace, was in the spirit of these principles. Lemke reiterates the simple message that “all teams playing in recognised Fifa competitions should abide by the laws of the game”.
Today the monitoring committee established a year ago by Fifa to address the question of whether the Israeli football association (IFA) is in violation of Fifa rules will make its recommendations. The evidence before the committee is straightforward and overwhelming. The rules prohibit a member association holding competitions on the territory of another without permission. Six Israeli clubs are playing in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Lemke’s letter confirms the UN’s clear position as to the illegality of Israel’s settlements. This position has been confirmed by numerous UN resolutions, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a 2004 international court of justice ruling. And Lemke’s intervention follows a comprehensive report by Human Rights Watch stating that the settlement teams are playing on land unlawfully taken from Palestinians.
The report goes further, saying that by allowing the Israeli Football Association (IFA) to hold matches on this land Fifa is enabling business activity that supports the settlements more broadly. In doing so, Fifa is in violation of the human rights commitments it has recently affirmed.
An April 2016 report commissioned by Fifa recommended that it implement the UN guiding principles on business and human rights (UNGP) throughout its activities. Newly elected Fifa president Gianni Infantino pledged on taking office to take seriously their social and ethical responsibilities. This is his chance to show he means it.
There is a now a rising tide of pressure on Fifa to act. Some 66 MEPs and six leading human rights lawyers, have all made calls for Fifa to act to ensure it applies its statutes appropriately to the IFA. More than 150,000 ordinary football fans have also signed a petition. In the UK fans have been making their views clear, with prominent demonstrations at Wales v Israel games in 2015 and 2016, and of course the Celtic fans’ demonstration earlier this year.
The test, for now, is whether Fifa’s stated intentions to take its responsibilities seriously has meaning. But this test also applies more broadly. The UK government agrees that Israeli settlements are illegal but continues to provide substantial support to them.
Much of the Israeli agricultural produce sold in the UK is grown in illegal settlements and benefits from preferential trade agreements with the UK via the EU. The ICRC ruling in 2004 commits governments to take “positive action”. Common Article 1 in the Geneva Conventions states: “The high contracting parties [of which the UK is one] undertake to respect and ensure respect for the present conventions.”
The UK government, like Fifa, should live up to its responsibilities and implement a ban on settlement produce as well as taking other measures to end the UK’s complicity with settlements. At the Palestine Solidarity Campaign we willcontinue to push for action.
Put simply, it is time for all bodies to stop talking about Israel’s settlements as illegal and to start treating them as such. Israel has long claimed that the global campaign calling for it to be held to account for its violations of human rights and international law occupation is seeking to hold Israel to a different standard than that expected of other nations – and in doing so questions the motivations of advocates of the campaign. The opposite is true.
The call is for Israel to be treated like other nations, and for it to abide by the same rules. The rules that Fifa applied to clubs in Northern Cyprus and South Ossetia, among others, who are excluded from competition, should now be applied to the IFA. Any other decision would represent a fundamental violation of the principle that makes football so popular: that we are all equal under the law and all play under the same set of rules.