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The Islamization of world soccer?

By Pinhas Inbari
web posted June 15, 2015

The measures taken by the Palestinian Football Association to expel Israel from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) are only the tip of the iceberg of a much more dangerous endeavor initiated by Qatar, which aims to use soccer to undermine Israel's domestic stability.

The fact that the Palestinian move failed at FIFA should not lull Israel into complacency.

Qatar has worked to undermine the domestic stability of many Arab countries, including Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Israel must examine whether Qatar has started prying into Israel's domestic affairs for the same purpose.

Sakhnin is an Arab city in northern Israel.  The name of the stadium of the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team is "Doha," named after the capital of Qatar, even though Israel bore the cost of building the stadium, and Qatar only made a supplementary contribution.

Behind the subversive efforts is an Israeli Arab, Azmi Bishara, a former member of Knesset who fled Israel because of suspicions that he had spied for Syria.

According to Palestinian sources in Ramallah, the status of two senior Palestinian figures, Bishara and Hamas' Khaled Mashal, has been upgraded since the accession of the new Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Whereas his father, Emir Hamad, gave these Palestinian figures refuge but kept them at a distance, the new emir has drawn close to them and enabled them to use the wealthy emirate for their anti-Israel activity.

The common efforts by these two Palestinian personalities, with wealthy Qatar as the backdrop, could promote a very dangerous unification between the nationalist pan-Arabism of Bishara, a Christian, and the extreme pan-Islamism of Mashal, who is part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bashara's analysis of the Israeli elections posted on his website provides an opportunity to delve into his views.

First, he fiercely opposes the "Israelization" of the Israeli Arabs, and demands that they be organized separately from state institutions. In an interview to Arab 48, he stated:

The Knesset is not the natural place to organize the Arabs as a people…. The ceiling of the Knesset is a Zionist ceiling and the Arabs in it are exposed to temptations…of the colonialist culture…and whoever [succeeds] to maintain his mental and moral balance – that is an achievement…. The Knesset is not the place to achieve the unity of the internal Arabs [i.e., the Israeli Arabs]. The place to represent the problems of the internal Arabs before the occupying administration…is the establishment of national institutions, and administrative structures that will preserve the Arab society and organize it outside of the Knesset.

He further explained that he rejects the comparison between the Ethiopians' struggle for integration into Israel and the struggle of the Arabs:

The Ethiopians demand their rights because they are Jews, and not because they are citizens of the state, and if you identify with them on behalf of their rights, you negate your own rights. I am not a new immigrant from Africa, and I am not a Jew so that I can attain my rights, rather I want my rights because I am a citizen.

He does not regard Israeli Palestinians' inclusion in the Knesset as inclusion in the Israeli political fabric; instead, he sees them as a lobby. In Bishara's view, Palestinian political activity within Israel should be organized into separate institutions that would consolidate the Israeli Palestinians as a group detached from the state. Hence, even their participation in the Knesset is temporary; their separate institutions, once established, will be their real representative institutions.

If that is the case regarding the Knesset, then it is even more so regarding Arab soccer. According to his logic, a common league should only exist until the "1948 Arabs" can form their own separate league.

Thus the current situation in Israeli soccer, in which Arabs play for Israeli teams and Jews play for Arab teams, is exactly the opposite of the model Bishara envisages for the Israeli Palestinians. Indeed, soccer as a common endeavor has been a main engine of the Israeli Arabs' Israelization process and the reverse of Bishara's vision.

Bishara would like to throw a wrench into this process. The volatility of the soccer fans' passions could indeed cause a deterioration of Jewish-Arab relations and make the soccer teams under Qatar's sponsorship a hub of friction and provocation.

Such provocations were not slow in coming. Under the new emir, Tamim, teams that receive aid from Qatar were required to hold provocative ceremonies expressing gratitude to Bishara.

The latest example involved a ceremony of this kind held by the Ahi Nazareth team:

Bishara's closeness to the emir of Qatar enabled the transfer of funds to social institutions and associations that operate in the Arab sector. The most recent of these transfers, which was received by the Ahi Nazareth association, and the show of gratitude to Azmi Bishara and the Qatari government, sparked a hubbub in the Israeli media. Bishara proudly said, "My assistance to the soccer teams, the cultural [associations], and the social initiatives is a very important thing."

Bishara confirmed that his relationship with the emir has led to payments to the Israeli Arabs, and that he is directly involved both in funding the soccer teams and in the provocative ceremonies of gratitude.

Israeli Arab Soccer and Palestinian Soccer

Qatar's involvement in Israeli soccer is only one side of the coin; it is also involved in Palestinian soccer. Qatar backs Palestinian Football Association head Jibril Rajoub's candidacy for Palestinian Authority president once Mahmoud Abbas steps down and is the main contributor to Rajoub's own soccer project.

That project is linked to the struggle over who will succeed Abbas. Whereas Qatar supports Rajoub, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promote Muhammad Dahlan, who was commander of Preventive Security in Gaza and the counterpart of Rajoub, who was commander of Preventive Security in the West Bank immediately after the signing of the Oslo accords.

The websites associated with Dahlan, such as In-light Press, criticize Rajoub for backing the re-election of Sepp Blatter, suspected of corruption, for president of FIFA rather than the Jordanian candidate, Prince Ali. Jordanians are furious with Rajoub and threaten to revoke his Jordanian citizenship.

Meanwhile, Israel has made a series of mistakes. It should have seen the implications of Qatar's assistance to Palestinian soccer from the start.  In particular, Israel has ignored the very grave provocations of Rajoub, including his statement that the Palestinians would use nuclear weapons against Israel if they had them.

Regarding FIFA itself, Israel ignored a blatant Palestinian violation of FIFA regulations when they transferred Israeli Arab players to Palestinian teams without reaching any agreement with the Israeli teams and ignoring the Israel Football Association. The case of Ali Khatib of Hapoel Haifa is just one example: a Palestinian team complained that the player returned to Hapoel Haifa in breach of his contract. Khatib, for his part, said there had been no contract and no transfer agreement with Hapoel Haifa, or if there was an agreement it was certainly forged. He had been playing for the Palestine national team even though, according to FIFA's laws, he was officially a player for Hapoel Haifa.

Lately, Rajoub said he would also demand that four soccer teams from "1948," that is, Israel, be included in the activity of the Palestinian Football Association. Here he takes a stance like Bishara's on segregating the Palestinians from Israel, while also denying the 1967 borders' validity when it comes to the Israeli Arabs. That explains why he ignored the Israeli soccer teams when drafting Israeli Arab players to the Palestinian league and to the Palestine national team.

Rajoub's measures strongly suggest that whenever the Palestinians join an international organization, sooner or later they will demand that Israel be expelled from it.

Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Soccer

Rajoub's activity reveals another dangerous aspect of Qatar's policy, also consistent with Bishara's outlook: the Muslim Brotherhood's penetration into the West Bank, Israel, and Europe by means of soccer.

Rajoub's counterpart in Gaza – and according to Palestinian sources, his unofficial deputy – is Abd al-Salam Haniyeh, son of the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh (who was himself a soccer player). In light of the fact that soccer activity in Gaza is under Hamas auspices, the demand that Israel grant freedom of movement to Gazan soccer players basically entails allowing Hamas personnel to enter the West Bank.

Qatar's backing of Rajoub as Abbas's successor, then, points to a real possibility that Rajoub will allow Hamas to infiltrate the West Bank. Rajoub, in his days as commander of Preventive Security, was known for cracking down hard on Hamas; it is possible that Qatar mediated reconciliation between him and the movement.

Qatar wants to use soccer to give the Muslim Brotherhood a foothold in Israel as well. The uniforms of Ahi Nazareth are green – the color of the Brotherhood – with the legend: "Thank you Qatar."

In Europe, too, the "red card for Israel" campaign helps introduce the Brotherhood's green as the color of the struggle.

Qatar's involvement in Palestinian and Israeli soccer is only one facet of its deep involvement in FIFA in general. The matter is now being investigated by the legal authorities in Switzerland and the United States, and the last word is yet to be spoken. Judging by its involvement in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, the emirate's huge investment in hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup may also be aimed at advancing the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Israel's Message to Qatar

In the case of soccer, Israel must make clear to Qatar that it will not tolerate subversion in its domestic affairs. In the case of FIFA, Israel must highlight the Palestinians' severe infractions of FIFA's regulations, which create a precedent that endangers the organization itself.

In the recent crisis Israel continued its policy of restraint. Once the crisis had ended, the head of the Israel Football Association, Ofer Eini, shook Rajoub's hand, and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev invited him to a meeting. Those may have been the right tactics for this particular crisis. But what led to the crisis in the first place was the strategy of restraint.

It may be worth heeding Israel's previous ambassador to Washington, MK Michael Oren, who said:

Here we see again that the boycott threats against Israel and BDS are not only limited to diplomatic talks in the United Nations or to the labeling of products. It begins to pervade the lives of all of us, and involves a cultural, academic, national boycott. A boycott that isolates Israel from the world is at least as dangerous to us as any military operation….It cannot be that the attempts at boycotts in all areas of life should intensify while we fail to do enough to stop the erosion. ESR

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.





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