This week FIFA’s senior representative, Tokyo Sexwale, will throw his hat into the ring as he attempts to resolve disagreements between Israeli and Palestinian football associations. The disputes are over Israeli restrictions placed on the movement of Palestinian players and the participation of at least five Israeli football clubs in Israeli leagues – two issues which Palestinians claim contravene FIFA’s own rules.
While progress has been achieved on movement for Palestinian players, the issue of settlement teams remains intractable. Their inclusion within Israeli leagues is the manifestation of a political process that seeks to normalise Israel’s claim to the Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967.
In this context, football has become a tool to legitimise the expanding settlements as an integral part of Israel. The trouble for Israel is that everyone else in the world – including its closest allies – agrees that settlements are not part of its territory.
The situation confronting FIFA and its European grouping UEFA (of which Israel is also a member) is not unique. Israel’s deepening hold over Palestinian territory has increasingly challenged its ability to pursue problem-free relations.
The more Israel advances its de facto annexation in contravention of international law, the more it complicates its dealings with other countries, international organisations and businesses.
FIFA is a case in point. According to its internal statutes, a national football association can operate clubs on the territory of another national association only with the latter’s and FIFA’s consent.
According to its internal statutes, a national football association can operate clubs on the territory of another national association only with the latter's and FIFA's consent.
The fact that FIFA has recognised the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) league since 1998, and allows Palestinian clubs in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) to play as part of FIFA implies that it recognises these areas as Palestinian territory.
The PFA has, however, not consented to Israeli teams playing on its territory. It must therefore be assumed that FIFA is either in clear breach of its statutes, or that it recognises Israeli settlements as part of Israel’s territory against international consensus – a point that Tokyo Sexwale must clarify.
FIFA’s acceptance of settlement teams also seems to contradict its own treatment of other cases of occupation and territorial conflict. After the Russian occupation of Crimea in March 2014, FIFA/UEFA prohibited Crimean football clubs from playing in the Russian league.
Similarly, football clubs in Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Luhansk Republic, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are excluded from FIFA and its national competitions. Their football bodies are instead members of a separate federation (CONIFA) which groups various non-recognised territories.
Israeli officials may point out that clubs from Western Sahara play in the Moroccan league. But FIFA does not recognise the football association of the Sahrawi Republic (SADR). This situation is, therefore, substantially different from that of the Israeli clubs that play on the territory falling under the Palestinian Football Association which is a member of FIFA.
The dispersal of these Israeli clubs across the same territory where Palestinian clubs are located has created an issue of overlapping jurisdiction between the two federations – another breach of FIFA statutes.
In addition, the settlements in which these teams play are part of a deeply discriminatory regime that privileges settlers over Palestinians in the occupied territory and involves large-scale violations of their basic rights: blocking Palestinian freedom of movement, confiscating their land, demolishing their homes and reducing their access to vital natural resources.
This conflicts, more than in the other cases, with FIFA’s increased emphasis on human rights, including the new Article 3 on human rights that has been added to its statutes.
Rather than struggling for a “political” compromise – something that is unlikely given deeply entrenched positions – FIFA would be best off adhering to its rules.
Until a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is agreed, FIFA is required to exclude settlement clubs from the Israeli Football Association. Such a step would not constitute a boycott; FIFA would just be respecting its statutes.
In adopting a rules-based approach, FIFA would follow the examples set by European and US governments, pension funds, and businesses that have sought to insulate their legitimate dealings with Israel from any illegality arising through links to settlement entities.
Sticking to the rules has worked for the football federations in the past. In Crimea, Russia had to abide by the UEFA decision and establish a separate Crimean Football Union. Odds are that Israel would ultimately respect a similar FIFA decision. The alternative would risk Israel’s exclusion from FIFA/UEFA for the sake of its ideological commitment to a handful of settlement teams in minor leagues.
Instead, a way could be found for Israeli settlement inhabitants to continue playing football without breaching FIFA rules. Following existing precedents, settlements could set up their own football association or even apply for membership in CONIFA. Alternatively, clubs could relocate their facilities and activities within Israel’s recognised borders just as some football clubs have moved from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper.
Under a third option, these teams could join the Palestinian league. This is, however, likely to be rejected out of hand by Israel’s sports minister Miri Regev – an ardent supporter of the settlements – and also risks being seen by Palestinians as legitimising the settlements.
Whatever solution emerges, this is a case where FIFA’s own laws need to be applied, not negotiated or bent. To avoid getting bogged down in the politics of this conflict FIFA must play by its own rulebook, existing precedents, and international law (as well as the Swiss law by which it is governed). To not do so would be to create a situation of Israeli exceptionalism and politicise the game – precisely what FIFA is seeking to avoid.
Martin Konecny is director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP), based in Brussels.
Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow and Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council of Foreign Relations based in London.