FIFA, the worldwide football association, is sponsoring matches in Israeli settlements in the West Bank on land unlawfully taken from Palestinians, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing new research.
To fulfil its human rights responsibilities, FIFA should require its affiliate, the Israel Football Association, which is conducting business in unlawful settlements that are off-limits to Palestinians, to move all FIFA-sanctioned games and activities inside Israel.
“By holding games on stolen land, FIFA is tarnishing the beautiful game of football,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine country director at Human Rights Watch. “FIFA has new leadership and has made new commitments to human rights this year.”
“FIFA should step up now to give settlement clubs a red card and insist the Israel Football Association play by the rules.”
Human Rights Watch investigated the situation of football clubs that play in the Israel Football Association (IFA) but hold their official matches outside Israel, on fields located in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which Israel captured and occupied in 1967.
Settlements are unlawful under international humanitarian law (IHL) because the transfer of an occupying power’s civilian population into the occupied territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and is a war crime. The settlements are built on land seized from Palestinians.
IFA matches in settlements are already the subject of a dispute between the IFA and the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), which claims that the IFA is violating FIFA rules that prohibit a member association from holding competitions on the territory of another member association without permission.
The PFA has been a member of FIFA, (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) since 1998, and its territory is understood to include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, recognised internationally as the occupied Palestinian territory or Palestine.
The IFA, which is also a member of FIFA, has said that FIFA should allow it to continue holding matches in settlements and should take no position on the status of the West Bank.
Israel’s military governs the West Bank as territory under temporary belligerent occupation, and the international community considers it occupied, but the Israeli government stands virtually alone in referring to the West Bank as “disputed territory.”
Last year, FIFA established a monitoring committee to resolve the issue, and the committee says it will submit its recommendations to a 13 October FIFA Council meeting in Zurich.
Human Rights Watch’s research suggests, however, that the issue is not merely a dispute between national associations over the interpretation of FIFA rules. By allowing the IFA to hold matches inside settlements, FIFA is engaging in business activity that supports Israeli settlements, contrary to the human rights commitments it recently affirmed.
An April 2016 report, commissioned by FIFA and written by John Ruggie, the author of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), which outline the human rights responsibilities of businesses, makes specific recommendations for FIFA to implement the UNGP throughout its activities.
Newly-elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino took office pledging to steer FIFA out of the human rights and corruption scandals of recent years, so that fans and players can focus on the “beautiful game” of football. Doing business in the settlements is inconsistent with these commitments, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch sought comment from FIFA, its Israeli affiliate, and its European regional association.
FIFA said it would respond at a later date, and UEFA declined to respond. The IFA sent a response on 23September 2016. Human Rights Watch also sent a summary of the report to the organisers of the settlement clubs, inviting responses, and officials from four clubs did so.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented how businesses in Israeli settlements in the West Bank contribute to and benefit from serious violations of human rights and IHL: 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 favour 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.
The transfer of an occupying power’s civilian population into occupied territory also violates international humanitarian law.
The UNGP require businesses to respect not just human rights law but also the standards of IHL. Human Rights Watch has applied the same analysis to the IFA’s matches held in settlements, which are sponsored by FIFA.
First, the settlement playing grounds, including one indoor (futsal) hall, are built on land that has been unlawfully taken from Palestinians, mostly by seizing land belonging to Palestinian individuals or Palestinian villages, declaring it state land, and then designating it for exclusive Israeli civilian use.
The West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinian residents, excluding East Jerusalem residents, are not allowed to enter settlements, except for approximately 26,000 labourers bearing special permits.
Arab citizens and residents of Israel, like their Jewish counterparts, may enter the settlements.
Second, financial documents that Human Rights Watch has reviewed show that the IFA is engaging in business activity that supports the settlements.
Settlement football clubs provide part-time employment and recreational services to settlers, making the settlements more sustainable, thus propping up a system that exists through serious human rights violations.
Third, the clubs provide services to Israelis but do not and cannot provide them to Palestinians, who are not allowed to enter settlements except as labourers bearing special permits.
Because of this, football teams, for example, operating in the settlements, are available to Israelis only, and West Bank Palestinians may not participate, play on the teams or even attend games as spectators.
In most cases, the clubs receive a majority of their funding from the settlement municipalities and regional councils, which essentially pay them to organise sports and recreational services for Israelis only.
Irrespective of the ongoing political dispute over the fate of the settlements and their football clubs, sponsoring matches in the settlements contradicts the commitment FIFA recently renewed, to respect human rights in its business activities, Human Rights Watch said.
The claim by some that the settlements will be annexed to Israel in the future and should, therefore, be allowed to flourish is not only speculative but also ignores the serious human rights violations that the settlements are and cause today, Human Rights Watch said.
“Whatever political decisions may or may not be made about the settlements in the future, they represent and contribute to serious human rights violations right now,” Bashi said. “This problem has one solution: FIFA should tell the IFA clubs to practice, pass, play all you want – but only inside Israel.”