LONDON: A group of 19 human rights activitists across a breadth of society has issued an open letter supporting Palestine’s demand that Israel be suspended world football.

The Palestine Football Association has registered a proposal to that effect to be debated by the congress of world federation FIFA at its congress in Zurich on May 29.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter will visit both Ramallah and Tel-Aviv shortly to meet political and sports leaders in an attempt to broker, at the least, a truce in the dispute.

The PFA has long complained about restrictions on freedom of movement of athletes, officials and sporitng goods by the Israeli security services.

Signees of the letter include Rodney Bickerstaffe (former UNISON trades union leader), Noam Chomsky (American linguist, philosopher, etc), Bruce Kent (ex-Roman Catholic priest and nuclear disarmament advocate), film-maker Ken Loach, barrister Michael Mansfield, Liberal Democrat politician Baroness Jenny Tonge and poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

Their open letter states:

The Palestinian Football Association will present a motion to FIFA’s annual Congress on 28th-29th May, calling for the suspension of the Israeli FA. We urge delegates to pass the motion.

Palestine took to the pitch at January’s Asian Cup to standing ovations from football fans of all nations. Their very appearance at the tournament was a heroic achievement in light of the obstacles faced by the team. No thanks are due to the IFA.

It has stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s murderous régime while Palestinian footballers have been shot, beaten, bombed, and incarcerated along with their fellow citizens.  And its only response to the day-to-day obstruction of travel, tournaments and the development of facilities has been to repeat the much-abused mantra of “security concerns”.

The IFA welcomes teams from illegal settlements into its leagues and competitions. It has racially segregated part of its national children’s league incurring legal action.

It has never once disciplined Beitar Jerusalem FC for that club’s long-standing apparent ban on the hiring of Arab players, or taken serious action to curb the notorious anti-Arab violence of its supporters.  

Two years of diplomacy have failed to secure change, and FIFA must now take punitive action in defence of its humanitarian ethos.

Its 30-year exclusion of South Africa from its ranks provides a precedent for the action that is required. The lesson, surely, is that there can be no “positive engagement” with apartheid – only principled opposition.

FIFA owes it to all Palestinians to uphold their right to fully access  football by supporting the call from the Palestinian FA for suspension of IFA. 

Ofer Eini, president of the IFA, has insisted that his body has done all within its power to ease the problems but has no power over the strategy and operational activities of the Israeli government and its security arm.

An indication of Blatter’s hope to stave off a clash at congress is the fact that the text of the Palestine resolution has not been included in the congress agenda documentation sent to all the 209 national associations who will be represented in Zurich.

To counter this PFA president Jibril Rajoub has sent the text of the resolution plus a five-page letter of justification and explanation to all the other 208 FAs.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been seeking to rally international support for resistance to the resolution, in what the Ha’aretz newspaper described as “the 89th minute.”

A commentary in the paper noted: “The fact that the Foreign Ministry – in the 89th minute, to use a soccer cliché – has intervened with regard to the Palestinian demand to oust Israel from FIFA . . . shows how clueless people are in Israel about the importance of sports in international politics.”