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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Israel could lose World Cup TV rights over settlement broadcasts

UEFA bars coverage for settlers and wades into Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem

The World Cup trophy on display prior to the final match between France and Croatia at the 2018 football World Cup in Moscow, Russia. AP
The World Cup trophy on display prior to the final match between France and Croatia at the 2018 football World Cup in Moscow, Russia. AP

Israel’s public broadcasting company may lose its rights to broadcast preliminary World Cup and European Championship games because it is refusing to exclude Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem from its programming schedule.

The development comes several weeks after Adidas ended its sponsorship of the Israel Football Association (IFA). The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) claimed the move as a victory as a result of their campaigns. However, an Adidas spokesperson told The National that the “decision was made on the basis of business and other considerations and has no political context,” as the contract was ending. Puma has now replaced Adidas as Israel’s sponsor.

Either way, the Union of European Football Association’s (Uefa) decision to push forward on the issue has kept the spotlight on Israel’s bid to legitimise football in illegal settlements built on Palestinian land, and which Palestinians and the BDS movement have long railed for world footballing body Fifa to outlaw.

“Part of the challenge is that businesses don’t want to be seen as weighing in on a political issue, or one side or another,” said Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel/Palestine researcher. “The reality is we aren't talking about political decisions. We are talking about businesses adhering to their legal obligations.”

Groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have called on Fifa to take a strong stance against Fifa-sponsored football clubs in Israel’s settlements, land that the Palestinians claim as theirs and part of a future state. Four settlement teams play in Israel’s national league. The Palestinians say their membership of the Israeli FA is another attempt to normalise the Israeli occupation.

“As well as being unlawful under international humanitarian law, Israeli settlements in the West Bank contribute to serious human rights abuses,” HRW wrote in a report last year. “The settlement clubs play their home games on land unlawfully seized from Palestinians, and West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to enter the settlements to play, coach or even watch the matches.”

Last year, Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, won the rights to air the World Cup qualifying games for $5.8 million. The UEFA contract, however, remains until now unsigned as it stipulates that Kan cannot broadcast matches inside what the UEFA defined as “the Palestinian territories,” and instead only inside the Green Line, according to The Times of Israel.

“The broadcasting authority will only sign a contract that allows it to broadcast to all Israeli citizens whether in Hebrew or in Arabic, regardless of where they live,” Kan told Uefa, according the same report.

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UEFA’s decision to keep the pressure on reportedly came at the request of Qatar, which owns the broadcasting rights to Uefa games in North Africa and the Middle East, the Palestinian Territories included.

Kan and Uefa have been in negotiations for months. But if the impasse is not solved, then they will lose the right to broadcast the games and matches would only be available to Israeli cable and satellite channel subscribers.

The move was welcomed by Palestinian football officials and campaigners against Israeli policies in the occupied territories.

The Palestinian Football Association told The National it "salutes and values that decision" which "is something to be respected" and is "a step in the right direction" towards preventing the normalisation of the settlements.

"We further hope and call upon Fifa to likewise take decisive decisions towards the illegal situation the Israeli football association continues to perpetuate."

Dr Geoff Lee, coordinator of Red Card Israeli Racism, a campaign aimed at Israel’s use of football to improve its international image, said in a statement: “Uefa is to be congratulated in this matter for adhering to the UN Guiding Principles.”

“The terms offered to Kan are a small victory for legality and decency. Israel’s illegal settlers should not benefit from the broadcast of Uefa matches while the state kills, tortures and terrorises in order to maintain its racist occupation,” he continued.

Israel’s Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev slammed the dispute as an attack on Israel.

“Sports organisations do not decide the borders of the State of Israel. The Israeli public broadcaster financed by the public must fight for the realisation of broadcasting rights in Judea and Samaria,” she told local news on Sunday, referring to the biblical names that nationalist Israelis give to the West Bank.

Argentina called off a World Cup warmup match against Israel following protests by pro-Palestinian groups. AP
Argentina called off a World Cup warmup match against Israel following protests by pro-Palestinian groups. AP

She said refusing to show games in illegal settlements gave support to “calls for delegitimisation against the State of Israel”.

During the last World Cup, Kan did not face similar controversy and showed matches with Hebrew and Arabic commentary on two separate channels, which were only broadcast to residents of Israel. This time around, however, a different company is heading the bidding process.

Last year, Fifa’s governing body announced that it would continue to permit six Israeli football clubs located in settlements to continue playing with the Israeli league. Then in June, Fifa rejected a proposal, put forward by the Iraqi and Algerian football bodies on behalf of the Palestinians, to amend the organisation’s statutes to take a stronger stance against human rights abuses.

Other campaigns have been more successful. Last year, Argentina called off their final World Cup warm-up against Israel, scheduled to be played at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium, after pressure mounted not to play in the disputed city.

Mr Rajoub, however, was suspended from football matches for a year for leading up to Argentina’s decision “inciting hatred and violence” by calling on “football fans to target the Argentinian Football Association and burn jerseys and pictures of Lionel Messi,” according to Fifa’s statement.

Still, for now, companies appear to be hedging their bets.

“Adidas wishes to thank the Israeli Football Association for its cooperation and wishes it great success,” the spokesperson said of the ending of the contract.