The owner of Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem football club said on Thursday that he called off a friendly match with international powerhouse Barcelona over its refusal to hold the event in contested Jerusalem.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, annexed it in a move not recognised internationally, and considers the entire city its capital.
Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the city’s status is one of the thorniest issues in the decades-long conflict.
Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg said he was forced to cancel the planned August 4 match because he refused to give in to what he said was “maybe political pressure” to play outside of Jerusalem.
“We cannot boycott Jerusalem,” he said. “If you want to play against Beitar Jerusalem you need to do it in Jerusalem,” he added.
In a Facebook post, Hogeg, who described himself as “a proud Jew and Israeli” as well as a Barcelona fan, said that he could not bring himself to “betray” the city.
“I’m not angry with Barcelona, they are not a political club and have no interest in taking part in our conflict here, our relationship will continue to be good,” he wrote, adding that he had made his decision in consultation with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion.
Lion, who said that he “unreservedly” supported Hogeg, decried efforts to boycott events in the city, reported Haaretz.
There was no immediate comment from Barcelona.
Hogeg, who purchased the team in 2018, has pledged to combat racism and sideline the club’s anti-Palestinian fans.
Earlier this month, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) sent a letter of protest to Barcelona over the planned game in Jerusalem.
In a letter to the world governing body FIFA, PFA chairman Jibril Rajoub said Jerusalem has been declared a divided city in a United Nations resolution and that Barcelona’s planned opponents Beitar Jerusalem are a racist club.
“Although we do not have the right to tell any club how to organise its friendly matches, we have the right to object to the choice of Jerusalem as the venue for the proposed match,” Rajoub said in the letter, which was also addressed to football’s European and Asian governing bodies, UEFA and AFC.
“According to international law, Jerusalem is a divided city and its eastern part is considered occupied Palestinian land, which gives the Palestinian Football Association jurisdiction over any football activities that take place in this part,” he continued.
The match was planned in the Malha district, the site of a Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed by Zionist paramilitaries in the run-up to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Palestinian football clubs had also written to Barcelona urging it not to play in Jerusalem.
The club, which is former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favourite, has gained notoriety for the racism of its fans and their “death to Arabs” chants.
Beitar Jerusalem is also the only major Israeli football club to have never signed a Palestinian or Arab player on its roster – a fact that the club’s ultras, known as La Familia, pride themselves in.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, had acquired a 50 percent stake in Beitar but it was frozen due to questions over the sheikh’s finances.
The team had previously said Sheikh Hamad has pledged to invest 300 million shekels ($92m) in the club over the next 10 years.