The case for sports sanctions against Israel

Both Fifa and the IOC have avoided statements denouncing the Israel-Gaza war and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, a decision in stark contrast to their handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

As the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza continues to rise – and amid reports that “pockets of famine” have started to emerge in the territory – there seems to be few ways they can defend themselves. One method could be through something that unites the world: sport.

On New Year’s Eve, Jordan’s Football Association (JFA) released a statement calling on the global sports community to take “decisive action to stop the aggression against Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories.”

The statement called for stringent sanctions targeting Israeli sports associations in an attempt to isolate it from international sports. This would include barring Israeli teams, clubs, players, and representatives from participating in international competitions “until the occupying state complies with international ceasefire demands.”

“The blatant disregard for moral and humanitarian laws has transfigured football facilities in Gaza into sites of harm, humiliation, and abuse for innocent civilians and children deviating from their intended purpose as spaces of joy and hope,” read the statement. “Silence in their critical circumstances may be perceived as an implicit endorsement of the occupation’s unlawful practices, potentially implicating parties in these grievous atrocities.”

The JFA’s statement came just days after disturbing footage emerged showing Israeli troops turning Yarmouk Stadium – one of Palestine’s oldest sports facilities – into a makeshift internment camp for Palestinian detainees. Dozens of men, women and children were rounded up, stripped down to their underwear, and blindfolded while armed soldiers and tanks encircled the field.

The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) also announced that it had sent letters to the International Olympic Committee and Fifa demanding an “urgent international probe into occupation crimes against sports and athletes in Palestine”.

“In the latest example of Israeli fascism, the occupation showed us horrific images during its invasion of the Yarmouk Stadium in the Gaza Strip, and turned it into a detention center where it abused and interrogated our people,” the PFA.

“This blatant and scandalous violation of all covenants is added to a long series of violations against Palestinian sports, including the killing and arrest of players. This is a crime that the international sports institutions cannot tolerate, silence and ignore.”

The calls for Israel to be banished from international sports are nothing new. For example, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has long (and unsuccessfully) advocated for Israel’s football association to be expelled or suspended for hosting Fifa-sanctioned matches in Israeli settlements in the West Bank – a territory that has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.

“Fifa has for years actively shielded Israel from accountability for its ongoing war crimes and violations of Fifa’s own statutes through its inclusion of teams in illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land. Fifa has gone so far as to sanction not the illegal settlement clubs but fan clubs expressing support for Palestinian human rights. This is how these hypocritical bodies express ‘neutrality,’” the BDS said in a statement this week.

The renewed calls for sanctions are in response to the ongoing war on Gaza, which has wreaked devastation on the strip, including its rich sports movement, one of the few areas in which Palestinians can find joy in their everyday lives.

According to the latest figures from Gaza’s health ministry, Israeli forces have killed at least 23,500 Palestinians and injured 57,305 others in Gaza since the start of the conflict, which was sparked when Hamas launched an attack on Israel that killed more than 1,000 people. At least 85 Palestinian athletes, including 55 football players, have also been killed since the beginning of the war, the PFA confirmed in a recent report cataloging Israel’s sports violations. The figures included 18 children and 37 teenagers. Since then, more names have been added to the list, including Hani Al-Masry, the former football player and general manager of Palestine’s national Olympic team.

Meanwhile, more than 300 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed, including 79 children. Over 2,550 Palestinians have also been detained in the occupied territory since 7 October while other local residents face mistreatment and abuse from Israeli soldiers, as well as restrictions on movement in the form of checkpoints.

The continued restrictions could be viewed as a violation of the Olympic Charter, which states that the “practice of sport is a human right.”

According to the charter, “every individual must have access to the practice of sport, without discrimination of any kind in respect of internationally recognized human rights within the remit of the Olympic Movement.” The document goes on to assert that these rights and freedoms should be secured “without discrimination of any kind” and that “belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter.”

Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, wrote to the Israel and Palestine Football Associations in October expressing his condolences over the “horrendous violence” taking place. However, both Fifa and the IOC have avoided issuing statements denouncing Israel’s ongoing war and the ensuing humanitarian crisis – a decision that stands in stark contrast to their handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The contrast in how the sports world has treated each conflict is stark. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion in February 2022, the world’s largest nation was transformed into a pariah in the world of sports. Russia’s national and club soccer teams were banned from international competition, including the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The International Paralympic Committee also moved to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus on the eve of the Paralympic Games in Beijing, while several international federations also took steps to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competition.

On 5 October 2023 – just before the start of the Israel-Gaza war – the IOC suspended the Russian Olympic Committee following Moscow’s decision to absorb sports organizations in four occupied territories in Ukraine. The IOC statement describes Russia’s actions as a “breach of the Olympic charter.”

The IOC has decided to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus who have military contracts. Interestingly, the IOC has supported the inclusion of Israeli athletes in the upcoming Paris Olympics, despite the fact that some participating athletes also serve as active members of the Israel Defence Forces.

The IOC has faced mounting pressure regarding Israel’s war on Gaza. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the organization’s contrasting approaches “outrageous” and an example of the IOC’s “bias and ineptitude.” Olympic officials responded by claiming that the two conflicts could not be compared.

“This is a unique situation and cannot be compared to any other war or conflict in the world, because the measures taken and recommendations made by the IOC are a consequence of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army during the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022,” an IOC spokesperson said in November 2023.

Nevertheless, the IOC’s and Fifa’s responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raise questions about the lack of similar actions taken against Israel amid its ongoing bombardment of Gaza. This discrepancy in handling international conflicts highlights a concerning double standard that undermines the credibility of these sporting organizations. This inconsistency not only undermines the principles of fairness and equality but also calls into question the integrity and impartiality of these global sporting bodies.

Furthermore, the glaring disparity in the treatment of Israel and Russia by the IOC and Fifa sends a troubling message regarding the perceived value of human rights and dignity, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By refraining from applying the same standards to Israel as they did to Russia, these sporting organizations appear to suggest that Palestine, as a member state and participant in major international events, is not deserving of the same level of sympathy, dignity, or the commitment required to uphold their fundamental human rights.