Ariel (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – At an average match, Ariel City attract fewer than 100 spectators at home in a West Bank settlement — yet they have been called one of Israel’s “most important” football clubs.
That’s because they, along with five other Israeli clubs, play their matches in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, considered occupied land by the international community.
The executive committee of world football’s governing body FIFA is due to meet on October 13 and decide whether to demand the Israel Football Association ban the small-time settlement clubs which play in its lower divisions.
Israel could even be suspended from international competition over the issue.
Shay Bernthal, Ariel’s chairman, laughed at the idea that his club is now at the centre of a storm.
“It’s very funny to me that our team, a very poor team, has made headlines all over the world,” Bernthal said ahead of a training session last week.
But for those parties concerned that settlement expansion is gradually putting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of reach, it is no laughing matter.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report accusing FIFA of “tarnishing the beautiful game” by allowing “games on stolen land”.
Sixty-six members of the European Parliament have called for FIFA to force the Israeli football association to ban the clubs from their leagues.
Ben Haddad, from another of the teams, one based in the Maale Adumim settlement outside Jerusalem, called the controversy “absurd”.
Ariel’s Bernthal said: “It is very important to us to strengthen the idea that there is a gap between politics and sport”.
Yet little related to settlements, which the international community has consistently declared illegal since Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, can be seen as apolitical.
More than 370,000 Israelis now live inside the West Bank, in communities largely closed off to Palestinians and seen by the international community at large as one of the largest obstacles to peace.
Besides being built on land Palestinians view as part of their future state, the settlements that dot the West Bank also suck up water and other resources, Palestinians allege. Israel denies this.
One of the clubs, Givat Zeev, is built on land the Israeli government accepts is private Palestinian land, Sari Bashi of the New York-based HRW told AFP.
The family that own the land are not allowed even to walk on it, she said.
Ribhi Dola, outgoing Palestinian mayor of Beitunia which borders Givat Zeev, said: “Our children in Beitunia don’t have enough space to build a ground to play football.”
– ‘Not in Israel’ –
Ariel is in Israel’s fifth division, most of the players are just paid travel expenses and the total budget is barely more than $50,000 a year, most of which comes from the local municipality.
The home ground is less a stadium than a field with lights.
The leftwing Haaretz newspaper has dubbed the settlement clubs the “most important in Israel today” before adding, “in fact, not in Israel”.
Israelis argue they are being singled out unfairly and point to other disputes globally, although FIFA has in fact also taken action in other such situations.
After Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, FIFA prevented Crimean teams from joining the Russian league.
Additionally, breakaway northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Luhansk Republic are all excluded from FIFA.
In Western Sahara, however, teams play in the Moroccan league despite no formal recognition of Rabat’s claim to the territory.
Hugh Lovatt, Israel and Palestine coordinator for the European Council on Foreign Relations, said a ban would send a “very strong message” to Israel that it “cannot use football teams as a political tool to try to impose acceptance of its occupation”.
“These teams are basically playing with a FIFA flag on occupied territory.”
Bernthal, however, insists the settlement clubs will play on.
Ariel has two new signings this season — Arab Israeli brothers Mohammed and Yusef Daher who live inside the Jewish state.
Yusef Daher, a goalkeeper, said he and his brother have felt no discrimination since they joined — though Palestinians cannot enter settlements without special permission.
“I haven’t once felt weird or that I had come to a settlement,” he said, speaking in Arabic occasionally mixed with Hebrew.
On Saturday, Ariel played their first game of the season, winning 4-1, with Mohammed scoring two goals.
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