Boycotting Israel’s goods and sporting events may not bring peace and justice, but it will send an important message to the country’s leaders.
I acknowledge Alex Stein’s plea for understanding and engaging with Israel without demonising it. However, I believe that the treatment meted out to Palestinian footballers detailed by Ismail Patel cannot be ignored if Israel wants to be treated as – in Alex’s words – “a country like any other”.
As the England football team prepared for its Euro 2008 qualifying match against Israel in Tel Aviv on Saturday, a modest shrine appeared briefly in London’s Soho Square, placed outside the headquarters of the Football Association to commemorate the deaths of children killed while playing the beautiful game.
The children in question are Palestinian boys who had the misfortune to be born under the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, now entering its fifth decade.
It shows that in this game, the Israeli team has the opposition heavily outgunned. Between September 2000 and December 2006, 869 Palestinian children were killed, while there were 122 equally regrettable Israeli deaths. Last year 152 young Palestinians died. Two Israeli children perished in the same period.
These grim statistics in themselves may not be a sufficient argument for boycotting a country’s sporting activities, but the relentless system of oppression of which they form a part, is.
B’Tselem describes Israel’s operations in the occupied territories thus: “a separation-cum-discrimination regime, in which it maintains two systems of laws, and a person’s rights are based on his or her national origin.”
Hundreds of checkpoints and barriers surround Palestinian villages and towns, turning the whole of the West Bank into a patchwork of ghettoised enclaves. Jewish-only roads criss-cross the landscape, linking expanding Jewish-only towns. The Israeli army deploys curfews and closures at will and imposes pass restrictions on more than 3 million Palestinians in territories it occupies illegally, in defiance of many UN resolutions.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote in April 2002 of his distress on visiting the region: “It reminded me so much of what happened to us blacks in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has documented the destruction of more than 12,000 Palestinian homes during the 40 years of occupation.
“The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza strip are now incarcerated in the world’s largest prison without human rights and surrounded by walls, electronic barriers and soldiers,” ICAHD said.
Against all the odds a football team representing Palestine managed, briefly, to top their group in the qualifying rounds for the 2006 World Cup. They were due to play a crucial Asian zone match against Uzbekistan in Qatar on September 7, 2005, but failed to qualify after the Israeli authorities refused permission for five key players to travel.
“Every day they come to the border only to be sent back,” said Tayseer Barakat, director for international affairs at the Palestine Football Association. “Every time our players want to travel outside for training or playing, the Israeli authorities are blocking them.”
In April 2006, Israeli missiles destroyed Gaza’s only football stadium.
In this conflict, world leaders in the White House, in Downing Street and the capitals of Europe, talk of peace while acquiescing in Israeli aggression. This is despite the fact that a growing number of Israelis and diaspora Jews are pleading for a change of direction. They can see all too clearly that continuing annexation and settlement, enforced by military might, is ratcheting up the despair and readiness to use violence among Palestinians and simultaneously eating away at the heart of Israeli society.
As long ago as April 2001, a group of Israeli citizens and Jews of other nationalities made the case for a boycott under the banner Matzpun (Hebrew for conscience). In July 2005, a long list of organisations representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Refusing to buy Carmel avocados or to watch Israel play football will not in itself bring peace and justice to this tormented region of the world, but it may send an overdue message to Israel’s leaders and their US backers.
If their government cannot understand that peace for both Jews and Arabs depends upon justice and human rights for all then, like the apartheid rulers of South Africa, Israelis should face a boycott of their goods and a ban on official sporting and cultural ties with the rest of the world.