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Former Palestinian security chief becomes unlikely champion of anti-Israel sport boycotts

He was once the chief of a feared Palestinian intelligence agency and spent 17 years inside Israeli jails for militant activities. Now Jibril Rajoub champions his people's cause through sport. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah
Jabril Rajoub is pushing for sporting boycotts against Israel.
Jabril Rajoub is pushing for sporting boycotts against Israel.

RAMALLAH // He was once the chief of a feared Palestinian intelligence agency and spent 17 years inside Israeli jails for militant activities. Now Jibril Rajoub champions his people's cause through sport.

Through his role as the head of the Palestine Football Federation and the Palestine Olympic Committee the 60-year old, who was once considered a possible successor to Yasser Arafat, now spends his time pressing for sporting boycotts against Israel.

As a result, this member of the Palestinian leadership's old guard has become an unlikely ally to young Palestinian activists seeking a new approach after decades of fruitless negotiations for a separate state.

"We believe that in the current situation that non-violent resistance, including using sport and football, is an effective tool to further our rights," Mr Rajoub told The National in an interview at his office in Ramallah earlier this month.

Mr Rajoub, a member of the central committee of the Fatah faction that controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), has worked in parallel with activists to support the non-violent tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. BDS proponents draw inspiration from the international boycotts and sanctions that helped bring down the Apartheid government in South Africa.

In February, he threatened legal action against the sponsors of this year's Jerusalem marathon, which wound through Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state which would include Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Rajoub also recently protested to the Uefa over its decision to hold the Under-21 European Championship in Israel this month. As a result, Sepp Blatter, president of football's world governing body, Fifa, said he would visit the West Bank next month. He said he planned to listen to Palestinian grievances over Israeli policies.

Mr Rajoub warned that Palestinians would ask Fifa to revoke Israel's membership if nothing came of Mr Blatter's visit.

"I don't think the Israelis on the one hand have the right to enjoy Fifa membership and on the other, to deprive rights to Palestinians, who are full, active members of Fifa," he said.

Under Israel's policies, Palestinian athletes face prolonged detention without charge and restrictions on movement between the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Mr Rajoub's decision to back the boycott movement signals a rift developing within the West Bank leadership, political observers have said.

"You have to keep in mind that Rajoub's transition comes in the context of the extreme frustration with the Palestinian Authority with the lack of a credible political progress after 20 years of peace negotiations with Israel," said George Giacaman, a professor in Birzeit University's democracy and human rights programme.

The former fighter, who was accused of human rights abuses while he was the head of the West Bank's Preventive Security Force under Mr Arafat, has also aroused suspicion with his new stance.

While some Fatah officials have embraced the concept of BDS, Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, questioned the intentions of Palestinian leaders who had persisted with 20 years of peace negotiations that had allowed Israel to deepen its occupation in the Palestinian territories.

Mr Barghouti said Palestinian leaders had become "addicted" to receiving foreign aid money and participating with Israel in "negotiations as a dogma" while always "willing to give up basic Palestinian rights".

Because of this, he said, they "cannot seriously be expected to lead any form of resistance".

Others still hold grudges against Mr Rajoub over the abuses carried out when he was the head of Palestinian intelligence.

In his 1998 book Arafat: From Defender to Dictator, the Palestinian journalist Said Aburish said Mr Rajoub "arrested and tortured more people than the rest of the security chiefs" working under Mr Arafat.

Mr Rajoub was accused of doing Israel's bidding by arresting scores of suspected Palestinian militants in Hamas and Islamic Jihad during his tenure as head of the agency, which lasted from 1994 to 2002.

According to a 1997 New York Times article, he enjoyed dining in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with Israeli officials, who jokingly referred to him by the Hebrew nickname "Gavriel Regev".

Mr Rajoub, a father of four from a village near Hebron, learnt Hebrew while serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison for throwing grenades at an Israeli vehicle in 1970. He was released in a prisoner exchange in 1985, arrested again in 1987 and then deported abroad.

But any affinity he nay have had with Israeli officials vanished during the second Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, said an Israeli familiar with Mr Rajoub. Despite Mr Rajoub restraining his Preventive Security officers from militant activities, Israeli warplanes bombed his Ramallah headquarters in 2002.

"He felt that Israel really betrayed him," said the Israeli, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mr Rajoub left Preventive Security that year amid US pressure on Mr Arafat to reshuffle his leadership.

He became head of the football and Olympic committees in 2008 and has been praised for building competitive sport leagues for men, women and young people in the Palestinian territories while also engaging international sport organisations.

"People appreciate what he's been doing in terms of sport over the last few years, even people who don't care much for him," said a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which Fatah controls.

He has a reputation for making inflammatory remarks about Israel, including praising captors of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for more than five years before his release in 2011.

During his interview, Mr Rajoub called Israel's government "racist" and "fascist" and said Palestinians had been "scapegoated for the Holocaust" by Israel.

He said the Palestinians would continue opposing Israel by using sport and other non-violent tactics to confront it internationally, adding that it was for Israel's own good.

"I think we have to act against them," he said. "We have to lead a campaign in order to put them on the right track."

Despite his backing of the boycott movement, Mr Rajoub still believes in the two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians unlike many young Palestinians who believe it is no longer possible.

"They either accept the two-state solution, or I think the future of the state of Israel is at risk, in danger," he said.


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Updated: June 27, 2013 04:00 AM