The last few weeks have been epically good for Palestinian soccer. Palestine—not officially a country but recognized as one by FIFA since 1998—is the most improved of any team in the world, according to the world governing body’s rankings released last week. The country jumped 71 places to 94th in the world, its highest ever. A victory over the Philippines in the final of the Asian Football Confederation on May 30 also saw the team qualify for its first Asian Cup—if they can afford the January trip to Australia.
But Palestine is still facing major setbacks when it comes to getting in front of an international audience. Its football association (PFA) claims that Israel has blocked its deputy general-secretary Mohammad Ammassi from traveling from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, which would allow him to travel into Jordan and make it to Brazil for the World Cup. And during the 64th FIFA Congress meeting that begins today, Palestinian officials are expected to ask FIFA to impose sanctions on Israel over the restrictions on the free movement of players.
Relations between Palestine and Israel in regards to Palestinian soccer players have been particularly strained recently, after two players were shot in the feet while walking home from a practice earlier this year near an Israeli checkpoint. Those players will likely never play again. (Israeli officials claimed that “a group of individuals was seen just seconds before throwing bombs at security forces,” and that the threat was neutralized.) And due to Israeli travel restrictions on the blockaded Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, the national team is already largely made up of players from the Palestinian diaspora, coming from countries as far as Chile.
During FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s visit to Israel and the West Bank in late May, the PFA said that it would request sanctions against Israel if it didn’t comply with FIFA statutes. Article 3 of the governing body’s statutes state that: “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
“This is not the first time Mr. Ammassi has been denied a travel permit,” the PFA said in a statement in regards to the recent denial of movement to their senior official.
On Sunday, a vigil was held in São Paulo’s international airport, calling for sanctions or possible expulsion of Israel from FIFA in protest. Susan Shalabi, Director of the International Department of the PFA, told the website Mondoweiss that even when it comes to Israel’s real security concerns, the ongoing issues the PFA is facing are counterproductive. “One of the purpose of establishing a good sport structure is to give these young people hope, and the Israelis are not helping,” she said. “When they shoot these people, when they restrict their movements, what alternative do Palestinian people have?”