You cannot keep politics out of sport … Uefa’s ban on the Palestinian flag is hyper political

You cannot keep politics out of sport … Uefa’s ban on the Palestinian flag is hyper political
The National, by Cat Boyd


The Palestine flag is apparently an “illicit banner”, according to Uefa, who will most likely be fining Celtic after a wall of fans raised the colours during the 5-2 trashing of Hapoel Beer-Sheva. Most onlookers recognise Uefa’s position as more than a little hypocritical, and I’ve heard lots of support for Celtic online, even from unlikely sources. Still, people with otherwise good politics sometimes stick to the blanket principle of “keep politics out of sport”. It’s one of those slogans that’s rhetorically convincing. Except it’s wrong; because Uefa’s stance is hyper political.


You see, for Palestinians, you can’t keep politics out of sport. Israel not only polices all Palestinian borders, it also controls movement inside the Occupied Territories – the small strips where Palestinians are still permitted to scrape out a meagre existence – through roadblocks and military checkpoints. The Israeli army thus regularly restricts travel to matches. They deny Palestinians the right to import football equipment. And individual footballers are killed, detained or denied travel, making a football career next to impossible.


It might sound like I’m exaggerating: I’m not. Take Ahed Zaquout, considered the greatest ever Palestinian footballer. After retiring, Ahed became a football coach in Gaza and hosted a sports show on TV. That was until August 2014, when an Israeli bomb killed him while he slept.
Ahed died during the 2014 conflict known as Operation Protective Edge. In this Israeli “operation” another 2,030 Palestinians died, according to the United Nations, including 501 children and 257 women. Of the 71 Israelis who died in fighting, 66 were soldiers. You can’t always measure human tragedy in numbers, and every unnecessary death of a person – including soldiers – in war is a tragedy to their friends and family. But sometimes, the numbers should make you stop and think. Here is an elaborate inequality of force.


Several current senior Palestinian players died that year at Israeli hands. But perhaps the most tragic football-related casualty of that war was on July 16, 2014, when Israeli warships killed four young boys aged between nine and eleven who were playing football on a beach.


Imagine an occupying army came north, stormed Edinburgh, massacred some of our most promising national players, and slaughtered fresh-faced youngsters having a kickabout with jumpers or ginger bottles for goalposts. Would we be saying, “keep politics out of sport” then?


Since Israel’s apartheid regime and regular occupations make football in Palestine next to impossible, the Palestinian Football Association has appealed to Fifa to ban Israel from competitions. Fifa, after all, has promised “zero tolerance and strict punishments” for racism in football


South Africa was banned from Fifa from the 1960s until 1992. That ruling had nothing to do with sport. It was all about politics: football took a stand against apartheid.


Is the Palestinian situation comparable, and could we thus take a similar stand towards Israel? Yes, says Desmond Tutu, the first black archbishop of Cape Town. “I have witnessed the systematic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security services,” he said. “Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.


“In South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.


“Those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”


Indeed, even some Israeli politicians have described their state’s policies in apartheid terms. “This is how apartheid looks, there is no nicer way of putting it,” said Zahava Gal-On, leader of the Meretz party, after the defence ministry imposed separate buses for Palestinian day labourers.


One contributor to Ha’aretz, the Israeli liberal newspaper, described their settlement programmes as being even worse than South Africa. “The system preserving this apartheid is more ruthless than that seen in South Africa, where the blacks were a labour force and could therefore also make a living,” noted Yitzhak Laor. “It is equipped with the lie of being ‘temporary’.”


Indeed, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most celebrated public intellectuals, goes further. “To call it apartheid is a gift to Israel,” he says. “What’s happening in the occupied territories is much worse.”


I wish Celtic could refuse to play them. Yes, it would cost us millions in lost revenue. But compared to the plight of Palestinian footballers and football fans, this would be a pretty minimal price.


Of course, this would never happen, and I’m not pretending it would. Football is a brutally political business: political in the moneyed, capitalist sense.


There are English Premier Division teams owned by some of the richest oligarchs in the world. Call that “mere commerce” if you will; I call it High Politics. Money and power counts; and in that equation, Israel has plenty, and Palestinians have zero.


Will football organisations like Uefa take a humanitarian stance to stop a racist state choking to death a defenceless population? Sadly, for those who own and control footballing business it’s too political to allow such a basic position.


Celtic fans, though, have distinguished themselves. They promised to match any Uefa fine by raising money for Palestine, and so far they’ve raised more than £30,000.


That show of basic dignity does them enormous credit. Maybe if fan controlled our clubs then football would be a different moral universe, which welcomed gestures of solidarity, rather than punished them.