It’s time to hold the Israeli Football Association to account

FIFA and Puma must cut ties with the IFA over its complicity in Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

Mahmoud Sarsak Reuters
File: Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak is greeted upon his arrival in Gaza City after being released from Israeli prison on July 10, 2012 [File: Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

Ten years ago, I was a professional football player and a member of the Palestinian national football team at the peak of my career. But on July 22, 2009, Israeli soldiers arrested me while crossing from Gaza to the West Bank to play a match. Israel not only robbed me of my career and my passion, but also my freedom.

The Israeli authorities accused me of being a “terrorist” – a claim which remained completely unsubstantiated and unproven right up to the day I was released – three years later. During the final stages of my wrongful imprisonment, I spent three months on hunger strike.

Throughout my ordeal, I received many messages of support from athletes across the world who called for my immediate release. When you are stripped of your rights, unlawfully imprisoned and banned from seeing your family and friends, global solidarity like the kind that I received during those dark days is incredibly important. But the need for solidarity with Palestinian football players and the Palestinian people as a whole, did not end when I walked out of Israeli prison. In fact, that solidarity is needed now more than ever.

I was not the first and will not be the last Palestinian football player who has been the subject of Israeli repression. Just over a year ago on March 30, 2018, the career of promising young Palestinian football player Muhammad Khalil Obeid was destroyed in a flash when he was shot in both knees by Israeli snipers while he was peacefully protesting as part of the Great March of Return. And in January this year, a number of Palestinian football players were injured when Israeli forces fired tear gas into the stadium they were playing in – for absolutely no reason.

When you live under military occupation, the oppressive regime infects every aspect of your life – from sport to education, from your culture to your home. Endless restrictions on freedom of movement, access to resources and fundamental civil liberties make engaging in sport a constant struggle for Palestinians – these violations of rights are totally incompatible with the principle of sport being accessible to all.

Today marks the UN International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. It is a great opportunity to reflect on how sport can be used as a vehicle for positive change in the world around us and how Israel instead of doing so, is using sport to perpetuate its crimes against the Palestinian people.

The Israeli Football Association (IFA) includes football clubs based in illegal Israeli settlements, training and playing matches on stolen Palestinian land. Israeli settlements are illegal land grabs that form an integral part of Israel’s occupation infrastructure pushing indigenous Palestinian families off of their land, robbing Palestinians of natural resources and denying them their right of movement. Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are considered war crimes under international law. 

In this sense, the IFA is clearly in breach of FIFA rules which prohibit a member association holding competitions on the territory of another without permission. A comprehensive report by Human Rights Watch said that by allowing the IFA to hold matches on stolen Palestinian land, FIFA is enabling business activity that supports the illegal settlements more broadly and, in doing so, is in violation of its own human rights commitments.

Over the past few years there have been growing calls for FIFA to take action and suspend IFA’s membership until Israel complies with international law, but this demand has consistently been ignored.

Meanwhile, IFA has refused to take measures to end its complicity in war crimes, despite being repeatedly condemned by UN advisers, dozens of elected officials, public figures and civil society and human rights groups. It is, therefore, imperative that all individuals and organisations who believe in freedom, justice and equality hold the IFA to account for its actions, and refuse to work with its representatives until it ends its complicity in crimes against the Palestinian people. 

In particular, IFA’s main sponsor, German sportswear manufacturer Puma, needs to take action. Just last summer, Adidas announced it was ending its sponsorship of IFA following a sustained campaign by activists and athletes across the world. Over 200 Palestinian sports clubs have already called on Puma to end its support for Israel’s military occupation by terminating its sponsorship deal with the IFA and we must continue to lobby the Germany company until it decides to fully abide by its stated commitment to human rights.

As someone who has experienced first-hand the devastating impact Israel’s regime has on access to sport, I urge all organisations who work with Puma to call for an end to its sponsorship of the IFA and, if it does not answer these calls, to cease all partnerships with Puma until it does. I also urge all those who believe in freedom, justice and equality for all to join the growing global campaign to get Puma to stand on the right side of the history by ending its complicity in human rights violations against the Palestinians.

Though Israel robbed me of my career and my freedom, they will not rob me or any other Palestinian, of our determination to attain the rights and freedoms that we are owed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.