Tel Aviv, Israel – With Europe’s most talented young footballers preparing for the kick-off of the under-21 championships on Wednesday, Israelis are celebrating the biggest footballing coup in their history.
The tournament, which opens with a match between Israel and Norway, will be broadcast to 140 countries. Some 170,000 tickets have been sold for the 15 matches, with thousands of fans arriving from England, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, as well as European politicians and more than 100 scouts from the world’s top clubs.
But the decision to host the high-profile event in Israel has fuelled criticism of European football’s governing body, UEFA, from a coalition of global statesmen, Palestinian leaders, international footballers and human rights activists.
They have spent months pressuring UEFA officials to switch the tournament to another country, arguing that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, and its record of undermining Palestinian sports, make it an unworthy venue for the championship.
Last week Desmond Tutu, the leading South African anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel peace laureate, threw his weight behind the campaign. In a letter published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Tutu and other prominent human rights activists argued that UEFA was acting to “whitewash” Israeli racism.
“We find it shocking that [UEFA] shows total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women by Israel,” they wrote.
Avi Luzon, the head of the Israeli Football Association (IFA), appeared unfazed. He said this week that the under-21s would be a showcase for Israel to win other tournaments, such as the finals of the Europa League and the Champions League.
“I believe that this tournament will be our entry ticket into the European elite and that we will host many more top matches and tournaments here,” he told the Israeli media.
But a number of European players have expressed their opposition to such a prospect. Last November, in the immediate wake of an eight-day attack by Israel on Gaza that damaged several football grounds, more than 50 leading European players signed a protest letter to UEFA.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Arsenal’s Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain’s Jeremy Menez were among those who argued the tournament would be “seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values”.
They also echoed Palestinian players’ complaints of repeated attacks on Palestinian sporting venues, the jailing of leading athletes, and Israeli restrictions on Palestinian teams’ freedom of movement.
Tutu’s voice, in particular, is likely to add a moral authority to the recent launch of a campaign by Palestinian groups and European and American solidarity activists for a sporting boycott of Israel, modelled on the international campaign that targeted South Africa from the 1960s until the fall of apartheid in 1994.
The move follows the growing success of a cultural and academic boycott initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005.
Campaigning under the banner of “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS), the movement has sought to deter artists from performing in Israel and scholars from cooperating with Israeli academic institutions.
BDS won a significant victory last month when Stephen Hawking, the renowned British physicist, publicly turned down an invitation to attend a conference hosted by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.
Now, as the UEFA tournament gets under way, Palestinian activists have begun championing an extension of the boycott to include sporting collaboration with Israel too.
Omar Barghouti, a leading BDS campaigner in the West Bank, said: “Until now we have been slow to focus on sports but, as the UEFA tournament proves, this is another issue that contributes to the feeling among Israelis that they are living in a ‘normal’ country even as they commit crimes against Palestinians.
“The sports boycott against South Africa had a powerful psychological impact on the white minority. It can have a similar effect on Israelis.”
Mahmoud Sarsak’s plight
Barghouti and others point to footballer Mahmoud Sarsak as an exemplar of the difficulties faced by Palestinian athletes under Israeli occupation. In recent months he has been travelling through European capitals lobbying UEFA to reverse its decision. More