The international governing body of competitive soccer is sponsoring and benefiting from matches in illegal Israeli settlements on occupied land that was seized from Palestinians, according to a leading human rights organization.
FIFA's Israeli affiliate, the Israel Football Association, "is conducting business in unlawful settlements that are off-limits to Palestinians," Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
The rights group said its thorough research shows that FIFA is "engaging in business activity that supports Israeli settlements, contrary to [its] human rights commitments."
Several football clubs that play in the Israel Football Association hold official matches outside Israel proper, on fields in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Soccer playing fields and arenas have been built on land that the Israeli government illegally seized from Palestinian villages or individuals, according to the Human Rights Watch report. The Israeli government declared this territory to be state land, then designated it for exclusive Israeli civilian use.
Israeli settlements violate international humanitarian law. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, transferring an occupying power’s civilian population into the occupied territory is not just a violation; it is a war crime.
Human Rights Watch stressed that settlement operations also "cause a range of human rights abuses to West Bank Palestinians that cannot be mitigated except by their dismantlement." Some of these abuses "include the unlawful taking of land and natural resources and their discriminatory allocation, restrictions on freedom of movement and other violations."
Military law in the West Bank only allows Israeli citizens and residents to enter settlements, Human Rights Watch noted. The 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank are not allowed entry, excluding a small number of workers who have special permits. Because West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to enter settlements, they cannot train for, compete in or attend FIFA-affiliated games in the areas.
"The football competitions in the settlements provide services and part-time jobs to settlers, making the settlements more sustainable, and, because of the discriminatory restrictions that the Israeli authorities impose, they do so on a discriminatory basis, allowing Israeli but not Palestinian players and spectators to participate," Human Rights Watch said.
A lot of money is involved, too. Financial documents, the rights group said, show that the Israel Football Association "is engaging in business activity that supports the settlements." Settlement soccer clubs give jobs to settlers, "thus propping up a system that exists through serious human rights violations."
Moreover, the settlement clubs provide the Israel Football Association and FIFA with revenue from ticket sales and broadcasting rights. FIFA, the Israeli Football Association and settlement soccer clubs are all nonprofit associations. But Human Rights Watch noted that, according to a report conducted by the author of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, FIFA "engages in substantial commercial activity."
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. The governing body of international soccer, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), earns $33 billion annually. Financial records show that FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) have transferred millions of shekels annually to the Israel Football Association "as part of a reciprocal financial relationship in which FIFA and UEFA earn money from regional and international games in which Israeli teams play," Human Rights Watch said.
The Israel Football Association had a total revenue of 85 million shekels (or $23 million) in 2014. This money came mostly from the Israeli government, via the public lottery; sales of tickets and broadcasting rights; and money transferred from FIFA and UEFA, which governs European soccer. (Israel is considered a European nation for sporting purposes, even though the country is technically in Asia.) In a 2010 agreement, UEFA committed to paying 13 million euros (or $14.7 million) to the Israel Football Association over a period of four years.
Although the Israeli settlement soccer clubs play in Israel's lower leagues, they also "serve as recruitment and training for Israeli professional teams," Human Rights Watch noted. "The settlement teams thus act as feeders for teams in the upper Israeli leagues, which compete in Europe and beyond."
The Palestinian Football Association, which is also a member of FIFA, has already taken action against the Israel Football Association, noting that FIFA rules prohibit member associations from holding matches on the territory of other member associations without permission.
FIFA created a monitoring committee in 2015 in order to resolve the issue. The chair of the committee said in August that it will present recommendations to the FIFA Council meeting in October.
On Sept. 9, 66 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, calling on him to require the Israeli settlement clubs to relocate.
Israel has militarily occupied the West Bank since 1967. The international community considers the Palestinian territory occupied. For decades, the U.N. has called for Israel to end the occupation.
Since the occupation began in 1967, Israeli civilians have created 137 settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, often with the support of the Israeli government. Today, more than 500,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied territories.
Citing its January report "Occupation, Inc.," Human Rights Watch noted that many businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank "contribute to and benefit from serious violations of human rights ... they are located on land that has been unlawfully taken from Palestinians, they exploit natural resources that belong to Palestinians but are allocated in a discriminatory manner in favor of Israelis, and they are part of a discriminatory regime that privileges Israeli businesses while blocking Palestinian businesses, social, and cultural institutions and infrastructure from developing.
"Israeli settlements are part and parcel of Israeli policies that dispossess and discriminate against Palestinians," the rights group said. "Their existence and expansion is contingent on Israel's unlawful seizing of Palestinian land and resources and a discriminatory two-tiered system of laws, rules and services that Israel has imposed in the area of the West Bank under its exclusive control."
Israel's separation wall also prevents access to Palestinian territory. Large parts of the wall run inside the occupied West Bank, cutting off Palestinians' access to their own land. Human Rights Watch emphasized that the wall is illegal, according to an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, which called on countries “not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed Palestinians directly affected. In one instance, a settlement and soccer field were built on a Palestinian family's seized land, on which they had previously earned a livelihood from farming. A member of the family told the rights group, "We feel like strangers. ... We can see our land, but we can’t reach it, and we can’t use it."
The man's nephew plays for a Palestinian soccer club, but must train and compete in neighboring Palestinian towns, because the club does not have access to a field in the Palestinian town of Beitunia, which is cut off by Israel’s illegal separation barrier, settlements and roads. Yet settlers play on a soccer field constructed on the family's seized land.
“Can you imagine?” the Palestinian man said of his nephew. “His father owns an entire field, a stadium, and his son is not allowed to use it!”
Human Rights Watch conducted telephone interviews with officials from settlement clubs; reviewed legal documents, land records, financial records and protocols; interviewed Palestinian landowners and public officials; reviewed maps provided by the Israeli military's civil administration; and studied aerial photos.
According to the rights group's research, there are six soccer clubs that are members of the Israeli Football Association whose official home fields are located in five illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including the settlements Ariel, Giv'at Ze'ev, Ma’aleh Adomim, Oranit and Tomer.
A seventh Israeli soccer club plays some home games in an illegal settlement, and two more Israeli clubs list their registered offices in the settlements Gev’a Binyamin and Kiryat Arba.
Most of these clubs "are heavily funded by the settlements in which they play, using budgets earmarked to provide sports and recreation facilities to residents," Human Rights Watch noted. "Yet because of the discrimination inherent to Israeli settlements, the clubs have no choice but to provide these services in a discriminatory manner.
"The clubs are an integral part of the Israeli football industry, which is in turn an integral part of the European and international football industry," the rights groups stressed.
Settlement soccer clubs are run on a volunteer basis. Managers who spoke to the rights group insisted their clubs offer services to their communities and provide spaces for children and other community members.
The manager of a settlements soccer club claimed his settlement was "built on abandoned, not private, land." The founder of the Maccabi Ariel indoor soccer club blamed Palestinians themselves, claiming "Arabs are the ones who occupied."
Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli Football Association and settlers to relocate their fields and games outside illegal settlements.
"They conduct their activities on land seized unlawfully and used for a purpose that violates the international law prohibition against an occupying power transferring its civilians to the occupied territory," the rights groups said. "As well-meaning as they may be, the clubs themselves cannot 'fix' the problem – except by relocating their activities outside the settlements."
Human Rights Watch also called on FIFA and UEFA, who oversee the Israel Football Association, to require it to stop its illegal activity.
“By holding games on stolen land, FIFA is tarnishing the beautiful game of football,” Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine country director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report. "FIFA should step up now to give settlement clubs a red card and insist the Israel Football Association play by the rules.
“This problem has one solution," Bashi added. "FIFA should tell the IFA clubs to practice, pass, play all you want – but only inside Israel.”