NEW DELHI: For years, the international community has held the position that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories constitute a violation of international law. More recently, the question of whether or not soccer clubs that are run in settlements qualify to play in international tournaments.

There is a growing body of opinion in the soccer arena that clubs from Israeli settlements must be disqualified because they operate live in illegal areas. As part of their effort to use peaceful methods in the resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, they want settlements clubs to be boycotted.

At its recent Congress, FIFA Congress turned down (or delayed, as they claim) a proposal to suspend Israeli settlement clubs from international soccer leagues. Despite widespread support for a ‘Yes” vote, FIFA maneuvered and blocked the Palestinian Football Association’s motion which demanded that the Israeli Football Association abide by FIFA statutes by excluding football clubs based in illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Instead, FIFA Chief Infantino hijacked the Congress agenda and prevented a vote on the motion, bowing to Israeli bullying tactics. Hind Awwad of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel observed that, like his predecessor Sepp Blatter’s, Infantino’s commitment to upholding human rights is also a sham.

Israeli settlements have always been ‘friction points’. Evidence collected by the Military Court Watch shows that the practice of arrests and detention of children are overwhelmingly from areas in close proximity to settlements or close to a route leading to a settlement. The military courts intimidate and apply false charges on children residing close to settlements. More often than not, the children are playing soccer themselves when they spot a military vehicle or tank. It is their simple form of resistance to throw a stone. They are pursued and detained for a minimum of three months.

Settler attacks also target agricultural land, damaging the livelihoods of Palestinian families and affecting children’s standard of living.

All settlements, whether or not formally authorized by the Israeli authorities, are illegal under international law and contravene Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer by the occupying power of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Football's world governing body FIFA is meeting to discuss whether to ban Israeli clubs playing games on illegal settlements in the occupied West bank.

Sports-based protests and calls for Israel's expulsion from international sporting bodies began when the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions Movement also began. But it took until 2013 for the sports boycott calls to take shape. It began with protests against Israel hosting a men's under-21 European football tournament in 2013.

The Palestine Football Association (PFA) sprung into action and launched a campaign to call for suspension of Israel's FIFA membership. The moves made in 2014, and again 2015, did not go too far. But with the BDS Movement growing, sports have also drawn sharp focus from spectators and officials alike. It did this in 2014 and 2015 but ultimately backed down both times. More recently a demonstration by fans of European clubs such as Scotland's Glasgow Celtic in 2016 that carried and waved Palestinian flags into the grounds has created larger attention.

The latest controversy is over the status of Israeli clubs based in illegal settlements. After the UNSC resolution in December 2016, FIFA was pressured to take critical action on the question of Israeli settlements vis-a-vis FIFA. Despite persistent UN rulings to the contrary FIFA has always sided with Israel. It has held the dubious and erroneous position that settlements are "disputed" territory, when, in fact, they are occupied territories.

Records have it that there are six Israeli teams based in West Bank settlements. Both Israel and Palestine are FIFA members and under its rules a national association can operate clubs in the territory of another national association only with its consent, something Palestine has not granted. The status of the settlement clubs was one of a number of factors highlighted by the PFA and BDS activists in previous calls to suspend Israel from FIFA. Yet it has developed into something of a standalone issue recently.

In fact, the calls for suspending Israel as a whole from FIFA are not a new demand. The parallel to this claim is based that just as South Africa was suspended during the apartheid era back in 1976, so should Israel. After all, Israel’s political structures are similar to, or worse than, South Africa under the apartheid system.

2016 was a signature year in the campaign against Israel’s inclusion in FIFA. The campaign was enlarging. The Palestinian Football association along with BDS groups, European parliamentarians, and civil society insisted that FIFA must act against the Israel Football Federation (IFA) if it continued to allow the settlement clubs to play in its leagues.

As it turns out, FIFA simply decided to drag its feet and be vague in its positioning. Even though FIFA head, Gianni Infantino defined the issue as a "priority", he begged off when it came to action. His tactic was to postpone matters and, thus, keep the status quo.

A few months ago, Sari Bashi, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Israel/Palestine advocacy director, commenting on the UNSC resolution now "makes it much more difficult for FIFA to pretend that allowing Israel to hold games in the settlements is neutral or acceptable." HRW pointed to a precedent for action on such issues, with Crimean clubs previously prohibited from being incorporated into Russian leagues following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a bind. He cannot arbitrarily ask the Israeli Football Association to move settlement clubs inside Israel's pre-1967 borders. Settlers are one of his strong bases and he would be politically vulnerable if he dared such a decision. He is also politically exposed if, at the end, FIFA does suspend Israel or even its settlement clubs.

Israel has developed a huge mass of soccer fans and they want to see their teams participating in European leagues and international competitions. Palestinians would, perhaps, be satisfied seeing the settlement clubs fall by the wayside. Even though the settlements would be intact, at least the clubs would de-recognized.

If FIFA were to decide to suspend settlement clubs, it would send a powerful signal and possibly pave the way for a blanket boycott for Israel in FIFA. A sporting boycott could surely exercise the global campaigns against the politics of racism and apartheid which Israel practices. Players and fans, alike, would become engaged. Public perceptions could shift in favour of Palestine given that Israeli practices would be more and more exposed by high profile players. The soccer arena is a mass base and could well be utilized to win over public support.

It was the this fear that sent shivers down the spines of Israeli authorities and prompted the Israeli Prime Minister himself to pressure FIFA head, Gianni Infantino to hold back on FIFA’s decision. Israel is clearly concerned about a possible suspension from FIFA. Israel wants to be seen and accepted as a normal country (abnormal as its systems are!). If Israel were to be suspended, it would de- legitimize that claim of normalcy. Being in the mainstream of sports, culture and educational exchanges allows the impression of normalcy.

What was said and agreed upon in the conversations between Infantino and Nateanyahu is anybody’s guess. For the time being Israel has prevailed. Infantino has helped Israel to be laundered. Israel has a deadly fear of being isolated even though the BDS Movement is gripping more and more attention. It is important that the international sporting community joined by fans act to end to Israeli impunity.

If individual teams and players refuse to play Israeli teams, the suspension of Israel from international sporting bodies such as FIFA will be hastened. The champion player, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal once refused to exchange his shirt with an Israeli player. It made big news and transformed a number of politically indifferent fans into a group of pro-Palestinian campaigners.

The Celtic gesture of waving Palestinian flags during a match against Israel not too long ago attracted punitive measures against the club. It was the fans who collected the funds to pay the fine levied on Celtic. Celtic has now a growing base of Palestinian supporters.

In 2014, Celtic was fined $20,750 in 2014 because fans waved Palestinian flags in a match against Icelandic outfit KR Reykjavik. They did so in protest at the Israeli military’s operation in Gaza that was taking place at the same time. The seven-week conflict left more than 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead. Activists from the Palestine Alliance group had handed out fliers and flags prior to kick-off, detailing why the protest was going ahead and mentioning the 1948 conflict that resulted in the creation of the State of Israel. A banner they held said: “Fly the flag for Palestine, for Celtic, for Justice.”

More than one hundred sports and human rights associations representing millions of people across the globe called on FIFA to demand that the Israeli Football Association immediately exclude teams based in illegal settlements, and for FIFA to suspend the association if it refuses to comply. At its Congress on May 11, 2017, FIFA did not heed their call. But the continuation of Israeli football teams based in illegal settlements in official leagues will only guarantee that, in the end, Palestinian human rights emerge in front and centre football fans. Teams based in illegal settlements and human rights violations have no place in the beautiful game of soccer.

FIFA has, for the time being, preferred the side of racist Israel. But it cannot stand the weight of international opinion forever. Every arena, sports, academia, culture, education, or business is an arena that can be rightfully used to campaign against injustice. This is a democratic right and responsibility. Israel’s colonialist apartheid system must be rendered ineffective and must be paralyzed by the weight of isolation until it surrenders its unjust and illegal political systems.

(Cover Photograph: Celtic fans wave Palestinian flags)

(Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator on the ‘Question of Palestine’)