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FIFA condoning football on ‘stolen’ West Bank land: HRW

Jerusalem (AFP) – FIFA has been condoning football matches played on “stolen” land in the occupied West Bank, Human Rights Watch said Monday, calling for Israeli clubs based in settlements to be forced to relocate.

Six clubs in the Israeli football league play in West Bank Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, the report said.

By allowing games to be contested there, world football’s governing body FIFA is engaging in business activity that supports Israeli settlements, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.

It said this ran contrary to human rights commitments undertaken by FIFA.

“By holding games on stolen land, FIFA is tarnishing the beautiful game of football,” Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine country director at the New York-based HRW, said in the statement.

“Some of these games are played on land owned by individual Palestinians not allowed to access the area, while others are held on land belonging to Palestinian villages that the Israeli military seized and designated for exclusive Israeli civilian use,” she told AFP.

To comply with international law, she said, the clubs “need to move their games inside Israel”.

Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.

The Palestinians have long opposed the participation in the Israeli championships of the settlement clubs, which play in Israel’s third, fourth and fifth divisions.

FIFA is expected to discuss the issue at an October 13-14 meeting of its executive committee.

“FIFA will continue its efforts to promote friendly relations between our member associations in accordance with FIFA statutes and identify feasible solutions for the benefit of the game and everyone involved,” it said in a statement to AFP.

The reaction of the Israel Football Association was that sport was being “dragged from the football field into a political one” but it had faith FIFA would deal correctly with the issue.

It needed to focus on “developing and maintaining the game as a bridge connecting people and not as a wall that divides them”, the association said.

Palestinian Football Association (PFA) head Jibril Rajoub confirmed to AFP they had asked the Asian Football Confederation and European Union to take up the case and were hopeful FIFA’s executive committee would support them.

In theory, if the issue is not resolved, the PFA could renew its efforts to expel or suspend Israel from FIFA.

Last year, it threatened to table a resolution calling on FIFA to suspend Israel over its restrictions on the movement of Palestinian players, in a move which also included a protest over the settlement teams.

It withdrew the bid at the last minute and FIFA set up a monitoring committee to resolve the issue. The committee is due to submit its recommendations to the FIFA council meeting.

Earlier this month, a group of 66 members of the European Parliament signed a letter calling on FIFA president Gianni Infantino to ban Israeli clubs based in settlements.

The MEPs cited UEFA’s 2014 decision to ban Crimean football clubs from taking part in Russian competitions as a precedent for barring the settlement teams.

Israel’s ongoing settlement construction has been a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians, according to many in the international community including the United States.

“Let me be absolutely clear: settlements are illegal under international law,” UN chief Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month.

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