This may be the year in which sport, especially soccer, emerges as the next frontier in the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to isolate Israel over its occupation of Palestine. And the ball is in BDS’s court, so to speak.
For one, Israel is clearly worried about the potential power of a sports boycott movement. Last month, the conservative Jerusalem Post reported that its “Hebrew-language sister publication Ma’ariv Hashavua has obtained a number of diplomatic cables about the growing phenomenon across Europe and the United States” of campaigns to isolate Israel. The cables mark as “a turning point” in this phenomenon the May 2015 request by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) to expel Israel from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. “This was the point at which [Israeli diplomats] understood and internalized the fact that the rules in battling BDS had changed,” Ma’ariv Hashavua reported, and opponents of Israel “noted that it garnered more attention and was more effective.”
Although the PFA motion was narrowly focused on specific Israeli violations rather than the impact of the occupation more broadly, Israel reacted with a full court diplomatic press. Israel launched what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an “international effort” to persuade other countries not to back the PFA’s bid if it came to a vote. This reportedly involved lobbying the sports ministers and football association heads of more than 100 countries “in order to draw a line in the sand.” The result was a temporary victory for Israel: a toothless monitoring committee that has predictably made no substantive progress months later.
But Palestinian campaigners and their supporters will take courage from the fact that the motion also generated widespread coverage and debate, both beyond the sports world and beyond those who normally pay attention to the Palestine-Israel issue.
Israel and its supporters can’t be happy with the growing presence of protesters at matches involving Israeli sportspeople. This includes opposition to Israeli participation at tennis tournaments; protests against the decision by UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, to award Israel hosting rights for the 2013 Under-21 Championship; disruption of ice hockey games in South Africa; protests outside basketball matches in the United States and football games in Europe; and a number of leading, mostly African, soccer players coming out in support of Palestinian rights.