Israel's sports minister has defended the country’s travel restrictions against Palestinian football players in a letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, citing security concerns.
Tel Aviv indicates potential attacks by Palestinian militants as the pretext for the prohibitive travel rules that affect most Palestinians, including athletes. Israel has barred travel between the West Bank and Gaza – territories located on opposite ends of Israel which Palestinians seek to include in a future state.
Israeli sports minister Limor Livnat said to Blatter in the letter that Israel would allow Palestinian athletes to “exit and enter for the purpose of sports, excluding occasions in which there are attempts to make use of sports in order to injure or threaten the security of our citizens.”
Livnat said Israel detained Palestinian national team player Sameh Maraabeh in April based on suspicion over a meeting with a “military activist” of the Islamic militant group Hamas during his team’s training in Qatar. She alleged that Maraabeh took funding, a mobile phone, and a written message from the activist. He remains in detention.
“I am confident you will find this information worrisome and constituting clear evidence of the misuse of sports in a fashion that threatens the security of Israeli civilians,” Livnat wrote, according to AP.
The Palestine Football Association had previously called on the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Congress to suspend Israel from FIFA until it relieves the restrictions on Palestinian players.
FIFA is to meet in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Tuesday and Wednesday this week ahead of the World Cup tournament beginning Thursday.
In May, Blatter attempted to bring the two sides together during a trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. He has called on the parties to “separate politics and sports” and to find a way to allow Palestinian players to travel.
In her letter to Blatter, Livnat also accused Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, of incitement against Israel.
Rajoub has described Israel as the “bully of the neighborhood,” and called on FIFA to levy sanctions against Tel Aviv for policies toward Palestinians.
Those policies include delaying or preventing visiting athletes and sports delegations from entering the West Bank and blocking some Palestinian players from leaving Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.
Jamal Mahmoud, head coach of the Palestinian national team, said he is not aware of a meeting between Maraabeh and Hamas during the team’s training in Qatar.
“If he did talk to a member of Hamas, it was his own individual decision,” Mahmoud said.
Palestinian football officials are trying to secure a location for training before the 2015 Asian Cup. The final location depends on Israeli permission based on movements of players in and between Palestinian territories.
“The hope from these discussions is that Israel treats our Palestinian players and those responsible for our Palestinian players by the national law and the charter per the agreement with FIFA,” said Ghassan Jaradat, media director for the Palestine Football Association.