The Palestinian Olympic Committee (POC) has blasted Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for sending two cycling teams to participate in the 101st Giro d’Italia cycling competition, which kicked off on Friday in Jerusalem.
For the first time in its history, a competitive leg of the world-famous race was held this year outside of Europe.
After starting in Jerusalem, the 21-day race continued over the weekend from Haifa to Tel Aviv and from Be’er Sheva to Eilat in the south. The event, which features 176 cyclists from 22 teams, is now set to continue in Italy where it will conclude in the capital, Rome.
However, the decision to kick off the event in Jerusalem was met with widespread condemnation from Palestinian officials and activists who accused organisers of “whitewashing Israel’s ongoing crimes”.
In a statement on Sunday, the POC also urged the UAE and Bahrain national committees to withdraw their participants from an event it described as “a disgrace to anyone who stands behind it or participates in it”.
The committee called out the Arab cyclists for their “disloyalty” and for participating in a “free service for the [Israeli] occupation that does not recognise international laws, resolutions and charters of the United Nations on the rights of the Palestinian people and continues to deny the right of the Palestinian Arab people to establish their independent state on their land with Jerusalem as its capital”.
Activists created a website, outlining Giro d’Italia’s route that passed by ruins of historic Palestine, where more than 500 Palestinian villages and towns were ethnically cleansed during or following the Nakba, when Israel was created in 1948.
“Israel is reportedly paying 10m euro ($11.9m) to host the Giro as part of its propaganda efforts, mimicking those of the apartheid regime in South Africa, to use sports to hide, or sportswash, its decades-long military occupation and apartheid system imposed on the Palestinian people,” reads a statement from the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) website.
The event took place just kilometres away from the Gaza Strip where dozens of unarmed Palestinians have been killed over the past few weeks by Israeli forces while taking part in the Great March of Return protests to demand the right to return to their homes seized by Israel 70 years ago.
About 7,000 Palestinians have also been wounded since the demonstrations began on March 30.
Earlier this week, Amnesty International UK also echoed similar concerns, noting that the race started off right next to East Jerusalem where Palestinians regularly face house demolitions, illegal settlement building and restrictions of movement.
“The authorities in Jerusalem may have thought that the glitz of Giro d’Italia might have a ‘sportswash’ effect, removing some of the stain of Israel’s human rights record. Instead, it’s likely to bring it back into focus yet again,” said Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK.
“The Jerusalem launch inevitably means Israel’s dismal human rights record is going to be in the spotlight.”