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“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that,” said former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Similarly, the backlash over the Palestine Football Association (PFA) dropping its threat to seek Israel’s suspension from FIFA is about much more than the sport itself.
Here was a chance to suspend Israel from the international governing body of association football, whose competitions include the World Cup, the Champions League and the European Championship.
The threat was based on a host of racist and discriminatory policies towards Palestinian football, including Israel’s hampering of the PFA’s activities, restricting the movement of players, and curbing the import of sports equipment and visits by foreign teams and individuals.
Israel’s suspension from FIFA would have been a massive contribution to the country’s increasing international isolation.
It would have also brought important exposure to the Palestinian cause through a novel and huge platform, the world’s most popular sport, whose fans may be largely unaware or uninterested in the politics of the conflict.
However, a golden opportunity to show Israel the red card turned into an own-goal due to the PFA’s mishandling. It had insisted before and during the FIFA Congress in Zurich on Saturday that it would not back down on the suspension vote, only for its president, Jibril Rajoub, to do just that at the last minute. He said he had been persuaded to back down, without elaborating.
“I decided to drop the suspension, but it does not mean that I give up the resistance,” Rajoub said, whatever that means. In return, delegates voted to establish a monitoring inspections committee to oversee a mechanism to ensure movement of players and equipment. In an act of face-saving that fooled nobody, Rajoub described this as “a great achievement”, as if this had been the goal from the start.
This has caused a tremendous backlash on social media from Palestinians and their supporters, with the creation of Twitter hashtags such as #RedCardJibrilRajoub and #SoldoutGibril.
At best, Israel is likely to continue hampering Palestinian football without giving quite enough cause for a full-on FIFA showdown.
They are right to be angry. For such a high-profile move, the PFA should have known that it would come under intense pressure, and carefully assessed whether it could withstand it. If it could, it should have walked the walk. If not, it should not have talked the talk.
The PFA instead made promises it did not keep and falsely raised expectations, thereby handing Israel a PR win.
“Our international effort has proven itself, and led to the failure of the Palestinian Authority attempt to oust us from FIFA,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gloated. At best, Israel is likely to continue hampering Palestinian football without giving quite enough cause for a full-on FIFA showdown.
However, the backlash against the PFA is part of rising Palestinian frustration with the PA’s ineptitude and duplicity over avenues towards justice and self-determination. It has reached a point where according to a poll in December, 55 percent of Palestinians believe that the PA has become “a burden” on them.
It took more than two years for the Authority to apply to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), after becoming eligible to do so in November 2012 when Palestine’s status at the UN was upgraded to non-member observer state. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was reported to be actively – and inexplicably – delaying and blocking the application despite constant Israeli provocation.
The PA has refused to support the increasingly effective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“We do not support the boycott of Israel,” Abbas said in December 2013. “We don’t ask anyone to boycott Israel.” This despite the PA website acknowledging that “Israel forbids any of our products from reaching its markets.”
In March, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) decided to support such a boycott. Despite the decision being binding on the PA, so far it has not been implemented. How the PA is not behind BDS, over which a growing number of Israeli politicians are expressing alarm, is baffling.
The latest such figure is President Reuven Rivlin, who just last week described BDS as a “strategic threat of the highest degree”. This was echoed two weeks prior by former CIA chief David Petraeus. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s new minister of strategic affairs and public diplomacy, reportedly conditioned his entry into the government on the allocation of adequate funds to fight BDS.
Another PLO decision that the PA has not implemented is cutting “security” coordination with Israel, which Abbas shamefully described last year as “sacred”. In the eyes of its own people, the PA would rather help Israel manage the occupation and colonisation of Palestine than end it, despite a poll last year showing 80 percent of Palestinians opposed to such cooperation.
A stark example of the PA’s subservience to Israeli interests are grotesque assurances by Abbas and his Foreign Minister Riad Malki that as long as he is president, he will not allow an uprising against Israel. Meanwhile, the PA is busy cracking down on dissent and peaceful protests.
Does this sound like a national institution that is capable of safeguarding Palestinian sport, let alone achieving national self-determination?
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.