While FIFA said it “must remain neutral with regard to political matters,” it has in fact made a political decision not to sanction Israel.
In a statement on 27 October after its latest meeting in India, the FIFA Council announced that it had decided not to take any action regarding the six soccer clubs based in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements. The presence of the clubs is a violation of both international law and FIFA’s own statutes. Palestinians have been calling for the clubs to either be moved to within Israel’s internationally recognized 1967 borders, or for FIFA to suspend Israeli membership in the world’s soccer governing body. The disappointing decision came after years of delays by FIFA, which has clearly been reluctant to actually engage with the substance of the dispute. It is a decision based not on FIFA rules, but rather taken in the hope that the issue will now quietly fade away.
The decision followed the final report of the FIFA Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine, headed by South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale. As I discussed in a three-part special series for Palestine Square earlier this year (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), this dispute has been ongoing for a number of years over a range of issues including Israeli restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian players, officials, and equipment; Israeli interference in the construction of soccer facilities in Palestine; and the illegal settlements clubs. These clubs gained increased prominence since a key Human Rights Watch (HRW) report highlighted the illegality of their presence, and have since been the subject of a growing campaign by the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
While FIFA said it “must remain neutral with regard to political matters,” it has in fact made a political decision not to sanction Israel, effectively legitimizing the settlements and opting not to apply its own rules when it was politically inconvenient to do so. FIFA’s decision also ignores the obvious precedent of the Crimean clubs, which were barred from competing in Russian leagues following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The presence of Israeli clubs within Palestinian territory violates FIFA’s own statutes. Specifically, national associations can only operate clubs in the territory of another national association with its consent, which Palestine has not granted to Israel. These clubs also violate international law, which the United Nations Security Council reaffirmed in a 2016 resolution. While these violations further increased pressure on FIFA, the world’s most powerful sporting body has continued to approach the issue as little more than a troublesome disruption of its fantasy world where politics and sports never mix.
At the annual FIFA Congress in Bahrain in May, 2017, the organization decided to again postpone a decision on the status of the illegal settlement clubs following Israeli pressure. The controversy around this delay prompted the Palestine Football Association (PFA) to file an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against FIFA’s decision not to vote on the PFA’s motion calling for recognition of its rights, all in accordance with FIFA’s statutes. The appeal was registered by CAS on 13 June, 2017, and CAS has just announced that the case will be heard on 27 November, with a verdict expected in the weeks that follow.
It is unclear how the recent FIFA decision will impact the appeal, if at all. A successful appeal could result in a vote on the issue by the the FIFA Congress, which unlike the smaller FIFA Council is made up of all 211 FIFA member associations. At press time CAS had not responded to a request for comment.
FIFA’s latest decision to abrogate its responsibility as the game’s governing body to address the issue unsurprisingly led to strong criticism from the PFA, the BDS movement, and HRW. Meanwhile Israeli officials hailed it as a “great victory” in Israel’s fight against efforts to hold it accountable.
There is no shortage of reasons for distrusting FIFA and criticizing its lack of integrity, but one would have hoped that at least it would apply its own rules consistently.
FIFA said it will continue to facilitate the movement of players, officials, and soccer equipment in, out of, and within Palestine, all of which continue to be impacted by Israeli restrictions. Thus, absent any substantive sanctions against Israel by FIFA, Palestinian soccer will remain subject to the whims of Israeli authorities.
Although FIFA has now declared the matter of the settlement clubs closed, it is unlikely that this is the last we hear about it, especially with the upcoming CAS verdict set to reignite the controversy and BDS groups having pledged to keep up the pressure on FIFA.