Nobody ever wants to be accused of politicising sport, but there are times when sport and politics intersect. Under apartheid in South Africa the argument was made that including South African sporting teams in international competitions legitimised the apartheid system.
Today there is a new controversy – that the legitimisation of Israeli settlement football teams may legitimise the occupation.
Palestinians are expressing their concern about comments made by Tokyo Sexwale at the Fifa congress last month when he addressed the congress as the chair of the special monitoring committee tasked to deal with Israel/Palestine football issues.
When Sexwale addressed the latest Fifa congress in Mexico City, he referred to the Palestinian occupied territories as “territory in dispute” between Israel and Palestine.
The former ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Ilan Baruch, has commented: “Referring to the Palestinian occupied territories as ‘territory in dispute’ – this coming from the mouth of a prominent South African leader as Tokyo is – undermines the Palestinian struggle way beyond the football and Fifa context. This in my view is a very anti-Mandela legacy, and very un-South African language.”
Baruch, who served as Israeli ambassador to South Africa from 2005 to 2008, is now vocal in articulating the Israeli critique of the occupation.
A number of Sexwale’s comrades have also taken issue with his comments, with Struggle veteran Ronnie Kasrils saying: “Tokyo Sexwale’s statement to the Fifa congress that Palestinian land is disputed territory is an absolute disgrace.
"He is ignoring the stated position of his party and the South African government, UN resolutions and the Oslo Accords. It is a shame that this once-proud freedom fighter has succumbed to opportunism owing to his craven ambition to become a contender for high posts within Fifa. What would Tokyo’s reaction have been in the bad old days of apartheid if our supposed friends had said that our struggle was over disputed territory?”
The UN, US and EU have all recognised Israel in its pre-1967 borders and do not recognise its sovereignty over the occupied territories. Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Sexwale repeatedly refer to the West Bank as disputed territory – adopting the term sometimes used by the Israeli government, as opposed to the international legal consensus according to which it is “occupied Palestinian territory.”
At the congress, Infantino announced that he and Sexwale would travel to Israel and Palestine to find a solution to the controversial issue of the five settlement football clubs – Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Bik’at Hayarden and Givat Ze’ev. These clubs participate in the Israeli football competitions organised by the Israeli Football Association. The controversy is around the fact that this is in breach of FIFA statutes, as well as in conflict with Fifa’s increased emphasis on human rights.
According to Fifa statutes, a national football association can operate football clubs on the territory falling under another national football association only with the latter’s consent.
The Palestinian Football Association has not given such consent to the Israeli Football Association.
The issue is whether Fifa should exclude the settlement clubs from the Israeli Football Association.
The chairperson of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, has said the Israeli Football Association should either remove the settlement football clubs from its membership or remove them from the occupied territories.
Interestingly, the Palestinians are also willing to include the settlement teams into the Palestinian Football Association.
The current Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, has said that he believes “this is an attempt by the Palestinians to poison every forum around the world, from the WHO to Unesco to Fifa. They abuse these forums for their own issues. The Palestinians don’t care about football or the WHO, or heritage, they just want to get people talking about their own issues, and they would like to hijack Fifa”.
The crux of the issue is that if Fifa were to legitimise the settlement football teams on occupied Palestinian land, it would amount to legitimising the occupation.
This would be highly problematic given that the settlements are illegal under international law.
Those arguing for Fifa not to recognise Israeli settlement teams have also pointed to other precedents such as the fact that in 2014 Uefa excluded the Crimean football clubs from the Russian league, and in 2009 Nagorno-Karabakh had to set up its own football association instead of being part of the Armenian one.
If Crimean clubs are not allowed to play in the Russian football competition, and Nagorno-Karabakh clubs in the Armenian one, then based on precedent there is little to support settlement teams being allowed to play in the Israeli one.
The only way forward for Fifa is to follow a rule-based approach, based on Fifa’s statutes, precedents from other situations and international law.
It would also be useful if Sexwale explained to South Africans what motivates him to take the approach he has.