A stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a dwindling number of Palestinians participating in non-governmental reconciliation efforts and increased racism in Israeli soccer constitute two sides of the same coin: fading hope and interest in peace, hardening battle lines and a resurgence of racism on both sides of the divide.
Yet, the measures being discussed to curb mounting violence on and off the pitch threaten to reduce political and social issues to a problem of law enforcement as the heads of Israel’s 16 premier league club meet to debate how to cope with a situation that is spiralling out of control. The solution to Israel’s soccer violence no doubt involves law enforcement, but a crackdown and harsher penalties are unlikely to restore faith in future Israeli-Palestinian coexistence or mitigate the brutalizing effect on Israeli society of 45 years of occupation of Palestinian land.
Granted, the heads of Israel’s top soccer clubs lack the power to address the larger political and social issues. Their inability to influence political and security decisions has become evident over the past year in what Palestinian soccer officials say is the inability of Israeli sports officials to even ease the restrictions on travel imposed on Palestinian athletes in the West Bank and Gaza. A hotline established last year between the Israeli and Palestinian Olympic committees to tackle such issues has so far produced little results.
"The problem is the Israeli committee is not the relevant authority for the movement of people and equipment. We are trying, but I don't want to embarrass anyone," said Jibril Rajoub, who heads both the Palestinian Football Association and Olympic Committee, in an interview last year.
Nonetheless, there are things the Israeli soccer federation can do to counter an environment of increased polarisation and racially motivated violence in the absence of political will among both Israeli and Palestinian political elites to definitively tackle big ticket issues involved in peace such as settlements, refugees, borders and the future of Jerusalem.
The Israeli Football Association (IFA) and the heads of soccer clubs need to come to grips with two types of albeit inter-related violence: racially-motivated aggression against Palestinians and those that empathise with their cause and violence involving only Jewish players and fans. Their response to inter-Jewish violence is clear.
"The first thing to do is significantly increase the punishments. I have been talking about this for more than 20 years, and that was a time football was much more violent," the Associated Press quoted Maccabi Haifa Chairman Jacob Shahar as saying.
Less clear is their response to mounting Israeli-Palestinian soccer tension. " The field has become a battleground, involving not only fans but also players, coaches, officials ... it is impossible to stay silent," Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat told a recent press conference after being instructed by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to put an end to the violence.
Messrs. Livnat and Shahar were speaking after a series of incidents in which players and fans clashed on the pitch and notoriously racist supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, a club historically linked to Israel’s right-wing attacked Palestinian shoppers and workers in a mall as well as later a Jewish woman who protest against their racist attitudes. Beitar Jerusalem is the only Israeli club that has never hired a Palestinian player, who are among Israel’s highest scorers. In response to Beitar Jerusalem chants of ‘Death to the Arabs,’ Palestinian supporters of Israeli Palestinian clubs like Bnei Sakhnin have begun singing ‘Death to the Jews.’
Writing in Soccer & Society, Israeli sports scholar Amir Ben-Porat warned already four years ago that “the football stadium has become an arena for protest: political, ethnic, nationalism, etc… ‘Death to the Arabs’ has thus become common chant in football stadiums… Many Israelis consider the Israeli Arabs (Palestinians) to be ‘Conditional Strangers,’ that is temporary citizens… Contrary to conventional expectations, these fans are not unsophisticated rowdies, but middle-class political-ideological right-wingers, whose rejection of Arab football players on their team is based on a definite conception of Israel as a Jewish (Zionist) state,” Mr. Ben-Porat wrote.
The IFA, despite being the only soccer body in the Middle East to have launched a campaign against racism, has allowed what Mr. Ben-Porat describes as ‘permissive territory’ that in which “some deviant behaviours are tolerated (such as using profanities) as long as definite rules are followed (that is, no racist chants)” to get out of hand.
The IFA has signalled a lack of sincerity by failing to impose its anti-racism rule by cracking down as hard on racism as it intends to do on what amounts to hooliganism. Forcing Beitar Jerusalem to drop its ban on Palestinian players, a violation of Israeli equal opportunity laws, and severely penalizing it for its fan behaviour rather than simply giving the club a slap on its knuckles while also taking Bnei Sakhnin to task for the behaviour of its fans would go a long way to tackling the issue of mounting racism on the pitch.
It would also send a signal to Israelis and Palestinians at a time that Palestinians are increasingly less inclined to engage with Israelis in the belief that reconciliation efforts are senseless as long as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalemated. An IFA crackdown on racism would to some degree counter Palestinian claims that there is no partner in Israel amidst the violence employed by Israeli security forces against protesters on the West Bank and anti-Palestinian statements by Israel’s ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Israeli peace activists warn that waning Palestinian interest in people-to-people encounters with Israelis threaten to undermine what is left of Israel’s already weakened peace movement. While peace may be beyond the IFA’s purview, a serious crackdown on racism would not only serve to counter what is an increasingly ugly trend in Israeli society but like the hotline signal that there are Israeli institutions that are willing to play their part.