Football in the Settlements – Israel and the Crimean Precedent

Football in the Settlements – Israel and the Crimean Precedent

Manuel Veth –

The Crimea precedent could now have its first major impact in the geopolitical world of global football. FIFA are now contemplating the status of Israeli settlement clubs located in the West Bank that are participating in the Israeli league system.

The clubs in question are Beitar Irony Ma’ale Adumim, Kiryat Arba, Bikaat Hayarden, and Givaat Ze’ev, of which Beitar Irony Ma’ale Adumim plays in the fourth tier of Israel’s football league pyramid. The city of Ma’ale Adumin was granted permanent settlement rights by the Israeli government in 1977, and was granted city status in 1991.

Under international law, however, the international community considers Ma’ale Adumim an illegal settlement on Palestine territory. This status is disputed by Israel, which believes that it has the right to settle the territory.

Palestine is not a state officially recognized by the United Nations, however, the territory’s football association is recognized by FIFA, which means that, legally, clubs like Beitar Irony Ma’ale Adumim are operating within the territory of the Palestinian FA.

Hence, in order to take part in official Israeli competitions, Beitar Irony, and other clubs located in the West Bank, would have to receive official clearance by the Palestinian FA to participate in the championship of a foreign football association. It is no surprise that the Palestinian FA has never officially cleared the participation of any of the clubs in question.

Human Rights Watch – Making a clear statement on an unclear situation

A recently published Human Rights Watch report has highlighted the issues of the settlement clubs, and has called on FIFA to sanction Israel for supporting clubs that are playing on Palestinian territory.

Yet, Babagol’s Uri Levy points out that the situation is not that clear, as this particular dispute reflects the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “As far as I know, all of the teams are behind the green line (the line was drawn by the UN in 1948 that separates Israel from Jordan), but those areas were never discussed as being returned to the Jordanians or transferred to the Palestinian Authority in any future deal. In many plans for a two-state solution, Maale Adomim, Ariel, Givat Zeev, etc., were included as parts of Israel.

Israel, the occupied territories, and the Green Line

Israel, the occupied territories, and the Green Line

Of course, Palestinian officials see this differently, have the support of several high ranking FIFA members, and have now likened the state of affairs to the situation in the Crimea.

The Crimean Peninsula was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in the spring of 2014. In the 2014-15 season, the Russian Football Union immediately began to integrate the professional football clubs located on the peninsula into the Russian league pyramid, despite the fact that the international community did not recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

Subsequently, both UEFA and FIFA threatened to terminate Russia’s membership if the Crimean clubs continued to operate in the Russian league system. After long negotiations UEFA declared Crimea a special football development zone, and the Peninsula received an independent football league.

At the time, Futbolgrad called the developments on the peninsula, the Crimean Precedent, and predicted that future geopolitical conflicts involving football would call on UEFA’s Crimean settlement agreement when attempting to resolve boundary disputes.

This now seems to be the case with Israeli settlement clubs that participate in Israeli competitions. Palestine has already called the Crimean precedent, and has asked FIFA to suspend the clubs in question and/or the Israeli Football Association if it continues to allow these clubs to participate in Israeli competitions.

FIFA will have to get involved in this particular case, as Israel is a member of UEFA, and Palestine is a member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

There have been strong objections about the report from the settlement clubs. Gabby Peretz, the founder of Beitar Givat Ze’ev, for example, has pointed out that the report has largely ignored the efforts that those clubs have made to be inclusive institutions for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Peretz wrote to Human Rights Watch: “We didn’t take over the field. We received it 20 years ago. I work in education, so that the children won’t run around in the streets. I don’t care if they are Jews or Arabs, from Givat Ze’ev or Jerusalem – everyone plays on my teams. Whoever tries to hurt those teams is committing a crime.”

Human Rights Watch and the economics of football

The Human Rights Watch report also stated that the clubs playing on Palestinian territory are part of the multi-billion industry that is FIFA. The report stated:

“Like most teams playing in the lower leagues, the settlement teams do not directly bring revenue to the IFA or FIFA, but they are part of the professional football industry, rooted in communities across the globe, that earns US$33 billion annually and helps maintain football’s status as the most popular sport in the world.”

Furthermore, the report reads, “[f]inancial records show that in recent years, FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) have together transferred millions of shekels annually to the IFA as part of a reciprocal financial relationship in which FIFA and UEFA earn money from regional and international games in which Israeli teams play.”

This section of the report is clearly exaggerated, as the settlement clubs are non-profit organizations that play either in the lower level of the Israeli football pyramid in an amateur environment, or are simply youth clubs that are not engaged in commercial activity.

Even high level Israeli clubs that play in UEFA’s top competitions, the Champions League and the Europa League, only receive a fraction of the pie that Human Rights Watch calls “the global football economy.” Babagol’s Uri Levy even points out that this section clearly represents the biggest weakness of the report.

“Sari Bashi [the author of the report] is a great human rights activist and very talented respectful law woman with plenty of experience, but it is clear that she lacks the knowledge to deal with the transition between football and politics and there are certain important points she did not investigated in this report.”

Football should be used as a tool for integration not division

Levy also points out that the language of the report indicates that “ football should not be played in Israel at all—because, in a sense, all of Israel is sitting on ‘Palestinian land’. In advance, she included Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem in the report, as a team that uses football facilities in Palestinian conquered lands.”

The report mentions Katamon as a club that should be banned because it has its offices in East Jerusalem but, according to Levy, “Katamon is maybe the club that promotes the majority of coexistence activity in the Middle East with teams in Arab villages, in the settlements, in East Jerusalem, etc. The club agenda is left wing, and everyone involved in Israeli football knows it. Katamon does a lot of work helping donations and activities within the Palestinian population of Jerusalem. For me and for many others, the fact that it was included in the report shows a lack of understanding regarding what is up in football in Israel or Palestine or the settlements, or whatever.”

Shay Bernthal, the manager of Moadon Kaduregel Ironi Ariel wrote in an email to Human Rights Watch:

“Both the semantics you used [in the report] and the facts are marred with errors and a lack of understanding of the project. There is no “business activity” here. This is a voluntary club, and receives no support from the Israel Football Association, quite the opposite, the club pays fees and funds activities through payments made by parents, donations, personal wealth and a modest allocation from local tax payer money subject to the law and to the regulations of the Ministry of Interior. The allocation is currently less than 45 percent, contrary to what you noted, and it goes down every year. So far, I have received no support from the Gambling Board [public grant-making body using lottery moneys] in particular, and other bodies in general, since the operating charity is a new charity.

Finally, the Israeli Football Association has pointed out that they do not wish to use football to resolve political problems. This part, however, may be wishful thinking, as football can never be taken out of the political context.

Hence, it will be impossible to separate the issue of settlement clubs playing in the Israeli football pyramid from real-life political events. As is true for almost everything in the Middle East, this is an extremely sensitive issue. On the one hand, the settlements make peace and a two state solution impossible.

On the other hand, the settlements have become very much a political issue. While football does indeed give a sense of legitimizing the settlements, the fact that people working for the clubs are doing important work on the ground to encourage integration of Jews and Arabs cannot be ignored. In fact, the Human Rights Work report acknowledges this, but it also states that the clubs are doing this in the wrong place.

The Crimea Precedent – An unfit solution

This sensitive topic will therefore require a sensitive solution—the Crimea Precedent that has been raised by some officials cannot resolve the issue because the two scenarios are only comparable on the surface.

The argument can be made that Israel, just like Russia with the Crimea, has stolen land in the West Bank. But with the Crimean Precedent, UEFA turned Crimea into a “special football zone” by establishing a precedent in which Crimean clubs have now to compete in their own competition, and the entire territory is under UEFA supervision.

Futbolgrad recently visited Israel, and met with the writers of Babagol, Uri Levy and Yossi Medina. While sitting in an outdoor café in Tel Aviv, we discussed Israel’s difficult political situation, and the situation in Gaza and Palestine in particular.

Both Uri and Yossi pointed out the active football scene in both Palestinian territories. Hence, an argument is made for those clubs to play in the Palestinian leagues instead. But Futbolgrad visited the West Bank and, amidst the security checkpoints, the wall, and the cultural divide, it quickly became clear that these clubs could never be safely included in Palestinian competitions.

The wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories - Image by Manuel Veth

The wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories – Image by Manuel Veth

Furthermore, according to Levy, the Palestinian FA does not offer the option that those clubs continue their activities under their jurisdiction. “So, obviously, the solution cannot be to ban those clubs,” he added. Levy also pointed out that it is funny that in 1998 the Palestinian FA ran their campaign to be included in FIFA on the principle of inclusion: “Football is for everyone, including those people who live in the settlements.”

Another suggestion has been to copy the Crimean Precedent to the letter and to establish an independent settlers league for Israelis living in Palestine. There are, however, several question marks involving this solution.

Wouldn’t the establishment of an independent settlers league legitimize the settlement process to the same extent as the participation of those clubs in the Israeli football pyramid? But the alternative would be to ban the clubs, and to destroy the work that clubs have done in terms of integration, and social inclusion of both Arabs and Israelis.

Even Human Rights Watch has admitted that the work conducted by the clubs is important. One of their solutions has been to move the teams away from the community to Israel’s territory which, in some cases, would mean traveling 50km to play amateur football. This solution seems unfeasible.

Palestine is pointing at the Crimean Precedent

Levy believes that this report has done more harm than good when it comes to finding solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict: “Those people don’t know nothing about the situation, and football in Israel and Palestine. The main reaction among Israelis was the same as always: “The world is against us, and it’s just another example of it. Israelis cannot stand people talking about the occupation.”

Instead, Levy believes that the report will give more ammunition to the political right in Israel—“Even right wing people are interested in hearing about Palestinian football from now and then.”

It will be interesting, therefore, to see how FIFA, and UEFA, move forward with this problem. Part of the Crimea Precedent was to issue a stern warning to Russia that they would be excluded from the global game if they did not comply with the proposed UEFA solution.

The Crimean Premier League was set up last season, as a compromise by UEFA

The Crimean Premier League was set up last season, as a compromise by UEFA

But, as Uri Levy told Futbolgrad, the Crimean case does not really work, as a precedent for this situation: “The situation is very complicated and, to be honest, the fact that national and religious conflicts are mixed inside of it makes it a lot more complicated than the Crimean case, and I am not sure it’s possible to really compare them. Our case is unique and problematic on a very different level.”

Futbolgrad highlighted that the danger of the Crimea Precedent was that other federations would use it to solve geopolitical problems despite the fact that the problems on the ground may very well not reflect what happened on the Crimean peninsula in the spring of 2014.

Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and a writer for He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.


  • comment-avatar
    Steven Nicholson 8 years

    UEFA’s recent stance in Crimea may complicate matters but I would point to the example of Derry City who are based in Northern Ireland but for the last 30 years or so have played in the League of Ireland south of the border. As would almost certainly be the case if the Israeli clubs mentioned were to play in Palestinian football Derry could no longer compete peacefully in Northern Irish football so with the help of FIFA they were allowed to “move” countries (but still play home games in Northern Ireland) In this case the most realistic outcome may end up being for those clubs to be become “refugee” clubs (like Qarabag) and relocate to Israel.

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