The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen pitched battles fought over everything from land to human rights to access to water. Now, the latest dispute centres around the most popular sport among both Palestinians and Israelis: soccer.
The Palestinian Football Association is pressing ahead with a vote tomorrow at the annual FIFA congress in Zurich to try to have Israel booted out of world soccer. The Palestinians say they won't let the arrests yesterday of several top football officials delay their move.
Palestinians have complained for years that the actions of Israel discriminate against their players and officials. They're asking the 209 global soccer organizations to raise the red card against Israel, as members of soccer's world governing body have done in the past when they suspended Yugoslavia and apartheid-era South Africa.
Perhaps the biggest complaint raised by the Palestinian Football Association is that its players and officials cannot move freely around the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The association holds up Farouk Assi's case as a prime example.
Assi, 33, is a long-time Palestinian soccer referee. Last September, he was driving from his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah to Jericho to officiate a match.
But he was stopped by an Israeli checkpoint. Worried about a delay, he says he tried to ask the soldiers why they were being held. Assi alleges that Israeli security forces dragged him from his car and blindfolded him. Cellphone video given to CBC News by the PFA appears to show a confrontation between Assi and Israeli soldiers.
"They held me for an hour and a half," Assi told CBC News. "It was very difficult to go through that experience."
Palestinian players in Jericho waited for Assi, but he never made it to the game. It was eventually postponed.
Palestinian football officials say this is ongoing concern in the West Bank, where local players have been restricted in their movements and visiting teams from abroad have been denied entry.
Other complaints against Israel
The Palestinians are also also expected to raise these issues in Zurich:
- Israeli restrictions which make it difficult for players in Gaza to travel to the West Bank for games and training sessions.
- The imposition of taxes on donated soccer equipment.
- Five Israeli teams that come from illegal settlements, which the Palestinians say contravene FIFA regulations.
"Let us utilize the game to build bridges. To build a good neighbourhood," said Jabril Rajoub, the head of the PFA. "I don't think [Israel] should keep playing like the bully of the neighbourhood."
FIFA president Sepp Blatter visited Israel and the West Bank just over a week ago, to try to find a compromise to avoid a vote. He was unsuccessful after a series of meetings with football associations on both sides as well as the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
'We just want to be equal, to have the same rights as all those around the world, as players and referees. Like Israelis. Like anyone else." - referee Farouk Assi
"Football is nowadays such a strong, strong organization that we should go into a peace situation and not into a fighting situation, and football shall connect people and not divide people," Blatter said as he wrapped up his trip.
The Israel Football Association said it has broken no FIFA rules. It's president Ofer Eini said, instead, the Israelis "always try to help" the PFA.
"We extend our hand to them," Eini told reporters recently.
The move to kick Israel out of world soccer comes as the Palestinian leadership has sought to further its cause directly in front of world bodies such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.
Those efforts have furthered Palestinian recognition, but have been denounced by Israel and Canada as harming the chances for peace between the two sides.
For their part, Palestinian officials deny the vote in Zurich is politics. They say it is in fact an effort to try to depoliticize the beautiful game in a volatile region where soccer remains hugely popular.
"We just want to be equal, to have the same rights as all those around the world, as players and referees," said referee Farouk Assi. "Like Israelis. Like anyone else."