Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Palestinian soccer team receives free kicks in the Australian media

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It is said that sport can bring people together - but that's not how the Palestinians leadership sees it.

For them it appears to be another avenue to disseminate propaganda against Israel in an attempt to further their campaign of international delegitimisation.

Yet, judging by the quality of the many news reports of the Palestinian national football team's visit here to play in the 2015 Asian Cup, it seems highly doubtful that most of the media understands this, obligingly relaying the impression of the players as underdogs pitted against cruel Israeli attempts to hamper their development and prospects.

Indeed, assessing the coverage to date, by and large, the majority of reporters have merely accepted at face value whatever they have been told and then repeated it.

Nothing exemplifies this more that the Herald Sun's David Davutovic (Jan. 16) who reported on Jibril Rajoub, the chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, here with the team, calling on the Federation International de Football Association (FIFA) to have "Israel expelled from all competitions at the FIFA Congress in May unless Palestinian players are allowed to travel and move around freely."

Rajoub accused Israel of having a "policy to restrict movement of footballers, inside Palestinian territories, or inside to outside" and of acting "like the neighbourhood bully."

And what was the response from Israeli officials to these threats and serious charges of deliberate harassment? We don't know, because, like almost all his industry colleagues who have reported the same allegations during the course of the tournament, Davutovic didn't bother to ask any Israeli official to comment.

 

Jibril Rajoub - "100% right" that we "disseminate anti-Israeli propaganda."

Rajoub, of course, is a notorious senior Fatah official, and a convicted terrorist (he was sentenced to life in prison in 1970 for throwing a grenade at an Israeli army truck. He was freed as part of a prisoner release deal in 1985). He is also a purported candidate for Palestinian President should Mahmoud Abbas ever retire or become incapacitated - and is clearly intent on using his role as Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association to raise his profile both on the Palestinian street and internationally by making as big a splash as he can.

Thus, in the highly competitive world of anti-Israel statements Rajoub holds his own.

Only last year in an interview he encouraged the slaughter of settlers (see video here). In April 2013 he told a Lebanese TV interviewer that he would use a nuclear bomb on Israel if he had one (see video here).

Furthermore, he openly acknowledged to Amos Roberts on SBS TV's "Dateline" in November that his intention is to use soccer - and especially Palestinian participation in the Asian Cup - to "disseminate anti-Israeli propaganda."

REPORTER: This is one of the things the Israelis criticise you for - they say you use football to disseminate anti-Israeli propaganda.

JIBRIL RAJOUB: This is 100% right, this is 100% right it's a tool to assure, to achieve my people's international aspirations. I think using football as a tool is better than using machine guns and grenades.

But you wouldn't know any of this from the local coverage.

In fact, judging by an op-ed in the Newcastle Herald (Jan. 8) from the convener for the "Newcastle No War Collective", Niko Leka, Rajoub was practically a pacifist, quoting him saying, "We are using football as a tool to achieve our national aspirations. It is better than using machine guns or grenades".

The ABC's Karen Percy missed an opportunity to ask Rajoub tough questions (Jan. 15) about his claims in light of Palestinian terrorism necessitating Israel's tough security measures. Instead, she quoted him in an online article saying how "sport is a good tool to expose the suffering of our people, to expose also our determination and our commitment to ensure our national aspirations."

Clearly Rajoub knows that journalists - most of them specialist sports journalists, under pressure of deadline, and knowing little of the complexities of the issues - are unlikely to ask critical questions or engage in elaborate fact checking when he puts forward propaganda claims about how the Israeli are supposedly deliberately trying to destroy Palestinian soccer just out of sheer malice.

Take this from Dominic Bossi's profile in the Age/Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 6):

Jamal Mahmoud - the coach who guided Palestine through qualification last year to their inaugural Asian Cup - stepped down in September due to personal issues. He had to rebuild his house in Gaza after it had been blown up.

In fact, according to the unofficial "Football Palestine" blog, the true story is very different:

Reports say that Mahmoud was upset at the lack of communication with the WBPL [West Bank Premier League] and felt that the upcoming league schedule should have been set up around national team preparations for the Asian Cup. Moreover, Al-Ghad has reported that the manager had gone eight months without pay.

Or this quote from wingback Hassam Abu Saleh in the Age/Sydney Morning Herald article:

"We face a lot of discrimination as Israeli-Arabs, discrimination is part of every day life. There are a lot of checkpoints; it's really hard travelling," he says via a translator. "The distance from Bethlehem to Amman [in Jordan] takes only an hour in distance but with all the checkpoints in place, it can take a whole day."

Uninformed readers are unlikely to know that Saleh is actually an Israeli citizen who plays for the Palestinian team. As such, with an Israeli passport it is highly doubtful many travel restrictions apply to him.

Untruths about the missing Gaza players

A recurring theme in many reports was the charge that the team is undermanned because some players did not receive exist visas - the implication clearly being this is Israel's fault.

However, in a profile by the Australian's Natasha Robinson (Jan. 2) it was stated that "five players could not get out of Gaza". This means that it was the Egyptian authorities blocking their exit by closing the Rafah crossing - not that you would know this from reading the story.

Karen Percy's story also mentioned players unable to travel to Australia because they are in Gaza but in the context of a report that mentioned nothing about the Strip's shared border with Egypt, the clear inference being Israel is solely to blame for their inability to from travel.

Clearly when there are chances for free kicks to be had against Israel and no one is likely to object, hey, why not.

Elsewhere, in a piece by News Corporation's Tom Smithies (Jan. 12), midfielder Abdelhamid Abuhabib, who lives on the West Bank, complains that he hasn't seen his mother and sisters, who live in Gaza, for three years.

Although Smithies explains that Abuhabib can reach Gaza through Jordan and then Egypt, no explanation is actually given why, if he is so anxious to see them, apart from inconvenience, he has failed to do so.

While the Rafah crossing has been closed on and off over the past three years, if he really wanted to go, he almost certainly could have managed to do so.

Abuhabib also claimed, "we're the only nation here at the Asian Cup that is under occupation."

In other words, the struggles they face are external and have nothing to do with the policies of either Fatah or Hamas rejecting repeated Israeli offers of a state that would end the "occupation" and create a Palestinian state.

As if reading from a prepared script, Abuhabib griped how "in Gaza they close all the routes for goods, for water, everything. They have no electricity, no water, no life."

A little journalistic effort would have revealed that Hamas deliberately refuses to accept gas to run Gaza's power plant either because it doesn't want to pay market rates, will not accept the gas if it came through Israel or for propaganda purposes keeps the electric plant shut off. Meanwhile, the insufficient electricity Gaza does have mostly come across power lines from Israel - and Israel has never cut this off at any time even though the Palestinians have often refused to pay for it.

Moreover, in contrast to Egypt, Israel allows through both humanitarian aid and most goods that do not have potential military application. The biggest challenge Palestinians face in Gaza is the struggle against the Hamas government there diverting incoming goods for its own ends.

In other words, Abuhabib's claims are just untrue - crude propaganda which no one bothered to check.

 

The missing player - and terrorist courier

In a video report on the Guardian Australia website (Jan. 7), the side's captain Ramzi Saleh claimed that player Sameh Mara'ba was unable to travel with the team and had been "arrested for a long time".

What the report did not reveal was that Mara'ba (who was released in December) was arrested in April 2014 for allegedly travelling to Qatar where he met a number of times with Talal Ibrahim Abd al-Rahman Sarim, a Hamas senior operative who formerly served a life sentence in Israel. (Sarim was released and deported as part of a prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas in 2011.)

Mara'ba confessed that he had received money, mobile phones and messages from Sarim to take back with him to the West Bank.

The very real security risks Israel faces were clearly irrelevant. Apparently, if a Palestinian serves as a money courier for a terrorist organisation, but also plays soccer, Israel is supposed to turn a blind eye to his terrorist activities or else be accused of deliberately oppressing Palestinian football.

However, to his credit, in an extremely long profile in the Canberra Times (Jan. 12) which included many of the one-sided claims and misinformation repeated elsewhere, reporter Tim Connell did manage to note that: "If it all sounds starkly simple - one state with a boot on another's throat - many Israelis argue it's not. The wall was built around Gaza in the 1990s after a spate of suicide bombers got into Israel. The bombings have stopped. Nearly all would-be attackers since then have detonated their bombs at crossing points or been stopped during checks. If you live on the right side of it, the wall works."

Reality and security

Furthermore, even amongst the Palestinian players, not everyone managed to stick to the rigid anti-Israel script.

On SBS Radio (Jan. 9), one player interviewed, Jaka Ihbeisheh, who was raised by his mother in Slovenia but whose father is Palestinian noted that he is constantly telling his friends that on the West Bank the "life there is completely normal" - which is true, and something absent from most coverage of the team. Ihbeisheh then went on to say that when travelling between Palestinian cities, you see Israeli soldiers on checkpoints and "it's really not normal because we are in 2015".

Indeed, it is it not normal that Israel is compelled to implement security measures because Palestinians are unwilling to renounce violence and make peace. The checkpoints weren't there before 2000 - they were adopted after the explosion of terrorist violence called the "second intifada", which led to over 1000 Israeli deaths. The checkpoints did a great deal to end that trend - and restrictions have been greatly eased in recent years, with many checkpoints and roadblocks removed.

Meanwhile, gullible journalists wanting to believe that Israel's actions are simply punitive and not related to basic security imperatives should reflect on the fact that Israeli soccer players' capacity to ply their trade are also subject to restrictions, over and above the fact that the rest of the Middle East is a no-go area for them.

In light of the acute security threat Israel contended with in 2014, UEFA banned European teams holding matches in Israel between July and September. Does that mean UEFA is deliberately trying to "destroy Israeli soccer" as is alleged when security measures have an impact on Palestinian soccer.

Dishing out silliness

Even short media snippets on the Palestinian team in the media often contained stupid errors, or lack of context - less egregious perhaps, but also indicative of the quality of the coverage.

The Courier Mail's Jan. 5 guide to the Asia Cup teams stated in the "Did you know?" section that "Palestine beat Australia 2-1 in a match at the SCG on July 22, 1939."

What readers would not know is that, while this visiting squad may have been called "Palestine" because they came from British Mandate Palestine, it was comprised wholly of Jewish players representing the pre-state "Yishuv" of Jews living there. It was thus essentially a precursor of the Israeli national team. Perhaps this was also an opportunity to address the Israeli team's absence from the tournament (see below.)

Also questionable was a Herald Sun preview (Jan. 4) which nominated the capital of Palestine as "East Jerusalem" and listed three national dishes including "Bulgur, beef and lamb" it claimed was associated with the "Galilee region". Galilee is actually in Israel, not the Palestinian territories, so this was an inadvertent endorsement of a Palestinian claims that pre-1967 Israel is also all rightfully their land.

In a similar vein, but more serious, was a story from Joe Gorman at Guardian Australia (Jan. 12) which focused on Mohammad Othman who "helps run a Palestinian futsal league in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, with each team named after a Palestinian town. Shijaiyah FC, for example, is named after a neighbourhood of Gaza, while Al-Tira Stars take their name from an occupied seaside town near Haifa."

Haifa is in Israel and has been since the country's founding in 1948. Do Gorman and by extension the Guardian Australia now deem sovereign Israeli territory as occupied?

Where is Israel?

In amongst the glowing profiles and media reports, the singular and obvious unasked question was - where is the Israeli team?

Surely, the Palestinian team's achievements would be even more noteworthy if it had succeeded where Israel, which hosted and won the Asia Cup in 1964, could not?

The simple truth is that, because of the preponderance of countries in the Asian Football Confederation that refuse to play against Israel, since 1974 Israel has not been able to play in FIFA's Asia division - even though this is Israel's natural geographic grouping just as much as it is for the Palestinians.

Instead, Israel competed first in the Oceania division, and since 1994, has competed in the European division.

The scandal of Israel's absence is compounded by the revelation by the Australian Jewish News that the Asian Football Confederation video showcasing past winners of the cup which was screened at the Asian Cup opening ceremony - with Rajoub in attendance - reportedly included every past winner except Israel's 1964 victory. (It is available on YouTube, here). Apparently, Israel is not only no longer competing in Asia, but in an Orwellian move, has also been expunged from the history of the Asian Cup.

Almost everyone agrees that politics should not be allowed to interfere with sport. Yet it seems hard to think of a greater example of political interference than what the Asian Football Confederation appears to have done to the Israel national team.

Meanwhile, no one is doubting that Palestinian soccer players do face difficulties because of the conflict - but that is no excuse for the media to assist Rajoub so unquestioningly in his self-described quest to use his soccer team to "disseminate anti-Israeli propaganda" - much of it simply untrue, or grossly oversimplified or out of context.

AIJAC is very happy to see the Palestinian national soccer team competing for the Asian Cup in Australia. However, it is sad to see the exploitation of their sporting endeavours to attempt to further deepen the already huge rift between Israelis and Palestinians. This is only likely to help perpetuate the ongoing conflict and make more distant the days when, post a two-state resolution, Palestinian and Israeli footballers can meet each other as sporting rivals, representing neighbouring states living in peace.

Allon Lee

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