x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

As South Africa proved, sporting boycotts work

The beautiful game may offer a solution to the ugliness of apartheid in the Middle East, writes Tony Karon.

Nelson Mandela and his then wife, Winnie,  on his release from prison. Sporting boycotts played a role in his release and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Greg English / AP
Nelson Mandela and his then wife, Winnie, on his release from prison. Sporting boycotts played a role in his release and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Greg English / AP
Playing football while being Palestinian can be a hazardous affair - a lesson for which four young boys paid with their lives last week after they were targeted by Israeli shelling during a kickabout on a Gaza beach.
In January, two teenage Palestinian footballers on their way home from a training session were shot by Israeli forces at a West Bank checkpoint - both had bullets fired into their feet, ensuring they'll never play the game again.
Before that, it took direct Fifa intervention to save the life of Mahmoud Sarsak, a player on the Palestinian national team who had been on hunger strike for 90 days after more than three years in Israeli detention.
The Palestinian national team recently won an Asian tournament without six key players, who had been barred by Israel from travelling. And those are just three examples of the impact of the occupation on Palestinian football.
For the Israelis, too, the decades-long occupation is disrupting their football. As a result of the security situation in Israel, Uefa (European football's governing body) has barred Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Be'er Sheva from playing their Europa and Champions League games at home. The disruption could expand significantly as Palestinian organisations look for new ways to challenge the status quo.
That's where the South African parallel becomes instructive. Back in April, following the collapse of the US-led effort to revive the peace process, John Kerry warned Israel's leaders that they were making choices that raised the risk of Israel finding itself subject to the same isolation as South Africa's apartheid regime experienced in the 1980s. And despite Mr Kerry later backtracking to comply with the pro-Israel Capitol Hill political consensus, the movement to use sanctions to press Israel to end the occupation had been growing even before the current bloodbath began in Gaza.
Divestment and boycotts are familiar tactics from the international anti-apartheid movement, but they didn't match the psychological power of the sports boycott: rugby was an essential part of the identity of the South African regime's base, and denying their ability to compete on an international stage was one of the most painful sanctions in the minds of many apartheid supporters.
Palestinian leaders and their supporters have begun to take note, particularly since Sepp Blatter, Fifa's president, has spoken out.
Article 3 of FIFA's statutes states: "Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion."
Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Football Association warned last winter that he intended to press for Israel's expulsion from international football's governing body. Fifa, of course, would like to avoid political confrontation, and it appears to have deferred the matter in the hope of seeking some sort of understanding on freedom of movement for Palestinian players between the Israeli and Palestinian football associations.
But, as Mr Rajoub pointed out, the Israeli FA has no influence over the Israeli military authorities that implement the occupation, so that exercise may be pointless.
It's not clear how far the Palestinian FA will push the matter. It will not be very far if it follows the example of other Palestinian Authority institutions and president Mahmoud Abbas, who tend to threaten action against Israel but invariably hold back in hope of some diplomatic progress under US auspices.
But the move for greater sanctions pressure against Israel has not come from Mr Abbas and the Palestinian Authority or any other national institutions. It has been taken up by Palestinian and Western civil society groups.
And given the potential for elite footballers to use their celebrity to send political messages, player power could have a significant impact.
Israel may be particularly vulnerable in Europe, where its membership of Uefa - which began only in 1994 - was based on Israel's diplomatic rehabilitation once it had ostensibly opted for a two-state solution.
Last year, former Sevilla striker Freddie Kanoute launched a call for players to boycott the Uefa Under-21 Championship in Israel. Despite some interest from other players, nothing came of the action. But there have been growing instances of players in top European leagues - like Chelsea's Egyptian winger Mohammed Salah, for example - taking individual actions to rebuke Israel and express solidarity with the Palestinians. (Rumours continue to abound of high-profile players and even national teams making donations to suffering Gazans.)
That's why Fifa, which is more narrowly focused on Palestinian freedom to play football under occupation, is only part of the story. In the South African case, boycotts and sanctions were adopted as a non-violent strategy to press for political change, not simply for the right of black South Africans to play sport unmolested by the state.
In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, too, football - and the presence of Israeli teams in high-profile European competition - is likely to present itself, in the coming season, as a tempting target to players and civil society groups looking to signal their rejection of Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme in international affairs at the New School in New York