“For athletes in Palestine, there is no real freedom of movement and the risks of being detained or even killed are always looming before their eyes” (Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub, June 2012). It took three months of hunger strike and the near death of a Palestinian footballer, Mahmoud Sarsak, for the Israeli authorities to agree to a release deal in July 2012. This is a sportsman whom Israel held for three years without charge or trial under the 'Unlawful Combatants Law', which is itself illegal under international law. Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Mohammed Nimr are also being held by Israel without charge. We maintain that a state which holds sportsmen as political prisoners is unfit to host an international sporting event. We, therefore, call on UEFA to withdraw the honour of hosting the 2013 European Under-21 championship from Israel.
Remove UEFA Under-21 Championship 2013 from Israel
An earlier letter to you signed by eminent figures including former football legend Éric Cantona, filmmaker Ken Loach, Michael Mansfield, QC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and writer Alice Walker (1), addressed racist oppression in Israel as exemplified by the treatment of Palestinian footballer, Mahmoud Sarsak, and called for an end to Israel’s impunity. We are grateful for any interventions you made on Sarsak's behalf, and welcome news of a deal that saw the footballer released on 10 July 2012.
It took huge international pressure and condemnation in response to three months of hunger strike by Mahmoud Sarsak to force the Israeli authorities to agree to this deal. This is a sportsman who has been held for over three years without charge or trial under the 'Unlawful Combatants Law', which is illegal under international laws (2). Sarsak felt so strongly about the injustice of his case that he was willing to die to highlight Israel's ongoing human rights abuses.
As pointed out to you in a June 2012 letter from Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub, in addition to Sarsak, Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Mohammed Nimr are also being held by Israel without charge. Rajoub makes clear in his letter the importance of UEFA not giving Israel the honour of hosting the next UEFA European Under-21 Championship in June 2013, when “For athletes in Palestine, there is no real freedom of movement and the risks of being detained or even killed are always looming before their eyes”.
UEFA's response to this urgent plea by Palestinians and their supporters is that “football – and sport in general – are building bridges between nations and communities and that political matters should not interfere with the practice of the game."
UEFA should understand that this argument rings hollow in the ears of Palestinians, footballers and others, who are victims of Israel’s discriminatory regime. Sport cannot build bridges when a government wields state power to imprison and oppress a specific community. The idea that politics can be separated from sport in this situation is clearly untenable. For Israel, sport, and culture generally, are tools to be used to divert attention away from the state’s persecution of the Palestinian population of Israel and the occupied territories – a population equal in numbers and just as passionate about football as their Israeli counterparts but denied access both as participants and spectators.
Have you considered how the besieged 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza will gain entry to the four Israeli stadia earmarked for the Under-21 games this year? Or how the population of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem will negotiate their way through checkpoints and across Israel’s apartheid wall to watch the games?
You stated in your response to Rajoub: “We cannot hold the Israel FA responsible for the political situation in the region or for legal procedures in place in its country.”
We cannot accept the contention that a national football association that has tolerated years of discrimination and suffering on the part of Palestinian players and football-lovers can be acquitted of its share of responsibility. Not only are prominent Palestinian players held as political prisoners, but on 20 June, a 12-year-old boy kicking a football around near his family home in Gaza became the latest in a sad catalogue of child victims of the Israeli military (3).
Where are the IFA’s public denunciations of such crimes? There are none.
We join Palestinians and people of conscience all over the world in calling on UEFA to withdraw the European under-21 Championship from Israel this year, and to deny it such privileges until such time as the State of Israel complies with international law and ceases its human rights violations.