Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Al-Sarsak waves to supporters as he is finally freed after three years in an Israeli jail without trial. Photo: Reuters
Ask your average football fan what they think about the Palestinian national side and you are likely to get an incredulous: ‘Palestine has a team?’ Ask about next year’s European under-21 finals being held in Israel and ‘That’s not in Europe!’ is the likely reaction. But European football’s governing body, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), has indeed selected Israel to host the men’s under-21 finals next June and the women’s under-19 finals in 2015.
Over the coming months Red Card Israeli Racism aims to publicise this and challenge Israeli racism through football.
Following a series of recent incidents, football’s governing bodies have again been proclaiming how seriously they take racism. Despite this a major competition is being staged in Israel – where campaigners argue that racism is institutionalised.
This was highlighted in June when football legend Eric Cantona endorsed a letter calling for the release of Mahmoud al‑Sarsak, a talented member of the Palestinian national squad who was on hunger strike in an Israeli jail. He had been arrested in July 2009 when he tried to travel from his home in Gaza to join a new club in the occupied West Bank.
An international outcry secured his release on 10 July. By then he had refused food for more than 90 days in protest at three years’ incarceration without charge or trial. Two other footballers are reported to be among at least 300 Palestinian victims of Israel’s ‘administrative detention’ regime.
Sarsak’s hunger strike came to a head during UEFA’s Euro 2012 competition in May, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. Cantona was one of many notables questioning the double standard that saw Poland and Ukraine threatened with sanctions over racism while Israel’s treatment of Palestinians went unremarked.
After Sarsak was freed, Theo van Seggelen, secretary general of the International Federation of Professional Footballers’ Associations, said FIFPro expected any player, ‘be it Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Mahmoud al-Sarsak’, to be allowed to play for their country.
This concern is welcome, but it is not enough, campaigners say. Sarsak may have been freed but the overall situation remains unchanged. Street violence targeting Palestinians and immigrants in Israel occurs against a background of high-level racist rhetoric. In May, Israel’s interior minister Eli Yishai denounced black immigrants as ‘infiltrators’ and said migrants ‘think the land doesn’t belong to us, to the white man’. Days later, ten Eritrean homes were firebombed in Jerusalem.
In the West Bank, Israel’s 45-year-old military occupation oversees an apartheid-style system of permits and checkpoints that severely limits Palestinians’ ability to train and compete in any sport. In Gaza the situation is even worse. Three players were among the 1,400 Palestinians killed during Israel’s assault in 2008-9, during which the Rafah national stadium was levelled.
The president of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, told UEFA president Michel Platini during Sarsak’s hunger strike that: ‘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.’ He pleaded with Platini ‘not to give Israel the honour to host the next UEFA under-21 championship’.
Rajoub’s request reiterated a plea sent to Platini a year earlier by 42 Palestinian football clubs based in Gaza. Platini ignored both. Instead he claims that Israel will host ‘a beautiful celebration of football that, once again, will bring people together’. This is despite the fact that Israel’s draconian controls will make it impossible for tens of thousands of Palestinian fans from the West Bank and Gaza to get to the matches.
Campaigners across Europe who took up Sarsak’s case are now in discussion with leading football anti-racists to make sure Israel’s racism remains high on the agenda. There will be leafleting and demonstrations at football grounds in several European countries. From October, they will focus on the seven European nations that qualify for the championship, aiming to persuade them to visit Palestine and see for themselves what life as a Palestinian footballer is like.