It’s good to know that Britain’s political leaders care so deeply “about the rule of law and selective justice” in Ukraine, that government ministers declined to attend the England football team’s quarter final Euro 2012 match there on Sunday (June 24).
Strange, then, that the illegal and unjust treatment of Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak – whose family is waiting anxiously to see if Israel will stand by a promise to release him after three months on hunger strike and three years in prison without charge or trial – elicits no such concern from the British government.
Palestinian FA president Jibril Rajoub wrote to UEFA president Michel Platini pleading with him to withdraw the U-21 from Israel.
He said that in addition to Sarsak, Israel was detaining two more footballers, Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Mohammed Nimr, and that Palestinian athletes lack freedom of movement and face the constant risk “of being detained or even killed”.
Platini acknowledged that UEFA had come under “a certain amount of pressure” but he ignored the points Rajoub made and reprimanded him for allowing the content of his letter to enter the public domain.
UEFA was “apolitical”, Platini declared, and proceeded to show his impartiality by telling Israeli Football Association President Avi Luzon in a separate letter that he was looking forward to Israel hosting “a beautiful celebration of football that, once again, will bring people together.”
The contempt for Palestine and its footballers exhibited by the man in charge of European football’s governing body is breathtaking. Platini must not be allowed to get away with peddling the idea that sport can be regarded as “apolitical” in a state which wantonly prevents Palestinian footballers from training and playing, brands them terrorists and imprisons them at will.
More than 300 Palestinians are held without charge or trial along with more than 4000 other political prisoners, all detained illegally in Israeli prisons. Akram Rikhawi has been on hunger strike for more than 70 days in protest at his detention and Hassan Safadi, who ended a 71 day hunger strike on 14 May, has resumed his fast after Israel breached a deal to free him.
And yet Platini suggests that the state responsible for this could hold a “beautiful celebration” that will “bring people together”.
Fortunately these bankrupt arguments don’t wash with many of those responsible for the pressure to which Platini referred. These include French footballing legend Eric Cantona, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, filmmaker Ken Loach and others who called for an end to Israel’s impunity in a letter to Platini on June 12.
They questioned why Ukraine was challenged (rightly) over its human rights record while Israel was not. “Racism, human rights abuses and gross violations of international law are daily occurrences in that country,” their letter said.
Loach, who last year endorsed a Palestinian call for Israel to be stripped of hosting the 2013 under 21s, told the Red Card Israeli Apartheid campaign: “The promised release of Mahmoud al-Sarsak shows what can be done by international pressure. Let’s hope that Mahmoud is returned home as promised. Now, let’s turn our attention to all the other Palestinians detained illegally in Israeli prisons.”
The campaign to free Sarsak has brought the plight of Palestinians to world attention, with support from the international federation of professional footballers FIFpro, 20 French players include Frederic Kanoute, Nicolas Anelka and Abou Diaby, the UK Professional Footballers’ Association, and even Sepp Blatter, the president of the international federation of football associations, FIFA. See previous post for a summary.
British comedian Mark Steel lampooned the Israeli position in the Independent newspaper.
“In 2006, [the Palestinian national team] were top of their World Cup qualifying group when the entire team was refused a visa for their match with Uzbekistan,” Steel wrote.
“ I suppose this must be because the whole team was in Islamic Jihad, and they were employing that old terrorist trick of becoming the national football team, then qualifying for the World Cup finals from where it’s a simple step to start an insurrection.”
Former UK Member of Parliament John Austin said in a letter to the Guardian: “Earlier this year, the UN determined that Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories violate the UN’s convention prohibiting apartheid. Uefa should reconsider its decision to hold its under-21 championship in Israel in 2013. “
An Israeli Embassy functionary alleged in response that Sarsak was a terrorist and that calling him a “young Palestinian footballer” was “insulting to footballers”.
He was swiftly answered by Dr Ghada Khami: ”If Israel’s press attache knows so much about Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak’s “crimes”, why hasn’t his government formally charged Sarsak with them or put him on trial in three years of detention? Or indeed any of the other 300 Palestinians held in Israeli administrative detention?”
The campaign to strip Israel of the under 21 competition has generated increasingly creative forms of protest.
Dutch activists produced this highly effective little film
About 140 protesters in Scotland added to the 8-0 humiliation of the Israeli national women’s team in a European championship qualifying match on June 17 with a large, energetic demonstration in the stands.
“Free Mahmoud Sarsak” was interspersed throughout ninety minutes of non-stop chanting with “Without guns, you’re rubbish” and multiple versions of “Boycott apartheid Israel”. The protestors warned the Scottish players of Israel’s habit of calling in an air strike when losing in a fair fight.
Mainstream sports reports couldn’t ignore the protests.
At a similar fixture in Wales three days later, around 50 activists picketed the main entrance and several were thrown out of the football ground for wearing Palestinian team shirts, holding Palestinian flags or just for chanting Free Palestine.
The head of security told campaigners he had orders from UEFA to remove any signs of support for the Palestinian people from the stadium.
A report made it into the Israeli media.