For the second time, Palestine is competing in the Asian Cup and is currently traversing the group stages, where it will play Australia, Jordan and Syria in the tournament in the United Arab Emirates.
Israel has previously hosted and won the Asian Cup – in 1964. Palestine was admitted to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1998. It should be a tale of good sports and fair play, but alas, it is not.
Since 1974, Israel has played under the European banner in the UEFA competition. How has a situation arisen where the football teams of two neighbouring populations play in different continental competitions? Simple: boycotts.
So many teams in the AFC boycotted Israel on the football pitch that it was no longer a viable member of the confederation. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel was booted out of the AFC following a campaign led by Kuwait.
The expulsion followed years of farce for the Israeli national team. In fact, the 1964 Asian Cup that Israel won was boycotted by 11 of the 16 qualifying teams, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Malaysia. Only India, South Korea and Hong Kong travelled to Israel to play a round-robin tournament that saw Israel win all three of its group matches.
In 1998, Palestine was admitted to FIFA – the global football body – and subsequently to the AFC, with no objections from Israel. It is important to note that FIFA membership has been extended to a number of teams that do not have officially recognised, independent, sovereign states: Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and Hong Kong among them. Four years earlier, after looking for a continental host, Israel was admitted to UEFA.
But even separation into different regional confederations has not removed politics from the footballing relations of Israel and the Palestinians. It is notable that Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Association, is also secretary-general of Fatah – the ruling party in the West Bank – and a suggested successor to current ageing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinian football in the West Bank is also inextricably linked to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA). To illustrate this, in November 2018, the AFC put out a statement from Malaysia condemning “Israeli military personnel” for entering the clubrooms of Silwan Football Club in East Jerusalem.
What the AFC failed to note in its statement was that the clubrooms were being used to hold a rally led by the PA’s Jerusalem District Governor Adnan Ghaith, himself a controversial figure, when the Jerusalem police entered the club to disperse demonstrators.
Ghaith’s party colleague, Rajoub, is currently banned by FIFA from attending football matches after he incited hatred and violence in the lead up to a scheduled Israel-Argentina friendly match in mid-2018. He was also fined after calling on football fans to target the Argentinian team, to burn jerseys and burn pictures of Argentinian champion Lionel Messi.
Rajoub uses his position as an association president to try to bully FIFA into expelling or condemning Israel. While he is yet to notch up a victory, Rajoub has managed to gain support in some quarters, including the AFC, which in 2018 voted to establish a taskforce to address “recent interference in [Palestine’s] football jurisdiction by Israeli military forces”.
FIFA has considered the allegations but, so far, has declined to act against this anti-Israel witch-hunt. In a 2017 statement, FIFA leadership noted “Given that the final status of the West Bank territories is the concern of the competent international public law authorities, the FIFA Council agrees that FIFA, in line with the general principle established in its Statutes, must remain neutral with regard to political matters.”
In a further own goal, Rajoub ruled that Palestinian footballers playing in Israeli leagues would not be eligible to play in the Asian Cup for the Palestinian national team – against the wishes of the team coach. Israeli Arabs are among the stars of Israel’s football league, and could give the Palestinian team a significant boost if allowed to play.
Sadly, the old adage that politics has no place on the sporting pitch clearly does not apply when discussing the Palestinian football team.