Palestinians confident Fifa will ban Israel from world football

The Palestinian leadership is to go ahead with a vote on Israel's Fifa membership this month despite opposition from Fifa president Sepp Blatter, believing it will secure the majority needed to have Israel suspended from world football, according to a senior Palestinian official.

On 29 May, Fifa is to hold its annual Congress in Zurich and the Palestine Football Association (PFA) will table a resolution to the world football body's 209 members to decide on Israel's status in light of Palestinian accusations that they violate Fifa rules.

The violations in question are that Israel restricts the freedom of movement for Palestinian sports teams in its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the inclusion of five football clubs from West Bank settlements in Israel's premier football league, and that the Israeli Football Association (IFA) ignores racism towards Palestinians.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) official, speaking on condition of anonymity, made the claims just hours after Blatter departed from his visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Rami Hamdallah. Blatter had the previous day visited Israel to meet with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Listen, if you read our resolution, we are talking about the Fifa statute, nothing else," the official says. "Who is going to vote against us? I think there will be less countries than those who voted against our statehood."

"Maybe countries could abstain but from those voting, we are going to have a majority," he adds. "The question here is not our counting on how many votes will be on the Palestinian side, it's a matter of principle."

"If members want to be complicit with an apartheid regime, we can deal with it and expose them. We are confident because our case is fully-based on the Fifa statute, we don't know how many countries could stand against it," the official concluded.

If the vote goes ahead and Israel is suspended, it would join only a few other nations to be banned from world football, including apartheid South Africa in 1964 and Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic in 1994.

Such bans prohibit the member country from participating in international tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Championships, while teams in the country's domestic league cannot take part in continental competitions such as the Uefa Champions League or Europa League.

On his visit to Israel, Blatter warned that the Palestinian vote could set a "dangerous precedent", saying it would be a "lose-lose situation for everybody" and one which both sides should avoid. Netanyahu lauded Blatter for not seeking to politicise the sport, stating that it would "cause the deterioration of a great institution".

However, others have joined calls for the vote to proceed and for Israel to be suspended. Ben White, journalist, author and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, says that based on the resolution proposed by the Palestinian Football Association, there are sufficient grounds for Fifa to expel Israel from the footballing body.

"It makes sense from the Palestinians point of view [to go ahead with the vote] because they have so few means of applying pressure in any meaningful fashion," says White.

"Restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, and the inclusion of football teams that are based in illegal West Bank settlements within Israel's professional league structure, those two things seem pretty good grounds for expelling Israel from Fifa," he adds.

Israeli analysts say that the Palestinian "diplomatic intifada" through various international channels, signals a growing perception among the Palestinian leadership that a diplomatic resolution with the Israeli government is unachievable, forcing them to take unilateral measures such as the Fifa vote.

"It's an example of the Palestinian Authority's strategic outlook on how they are dealing with Israel right now," says Ron Gilran, vice-president of the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy The Levantine Group. "It's what some call the 'diplomatic intifada'. It is to embarrass Israel in the international community as much as possible in order to pile or exert pressure on the Israeli government."

"I believe that many in the Palestinian Authority are disillusioned so they are going unilaterally," adds Gilran. "I don't anticipate this trend to stop unless there is a serious political change in Israel."

Palestinians argue that not only does Israel restrict its football team's movement but it also attempts to stifle it in other ways. Last November, Israeli forces raided the PFA headquarters in the occupied West Bank and, in the same month, Israeli forces reportedly shot two Palestinian football players in the feet on their way home from a training session, leaving them unable to play again.

An online petition to have the membership of the IFA revoked until Israel "observes international law" in its dealings with the Palestinians was created last year and has amassed over 20,000 signatures.

The Fifa vote is not the only controversial issue Israeli authorities have faced this week. Earlier today, Netanyahu and his defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, scrapped a pilot scheme which would have banned Palestinian workers from Israeli buses in the occupied West Bank after it was widely condemned both domestically and by the international community, with critics drawing parallels between the policy and South African apartheid.