FIFA’s Israel-Palestinian committee meets for first time

A new FIFA committee began its attempt to settle the dispute between the Israeli and Palestinian football federations when it met for the first time on Wednesday, soccer's world governing body said.

The meeting was chaired by South African businessman and former political prisoner Tokyo Sexwale, who said that both sides had confirmed their intention to promote a dialogue.

The committee was set up following a heated exchange at the FIFA Congress in May, when the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) unexpectedly dropped its proposal to have Israel banned from international soccer.

The PFA has complained of anti-Arab racism in the Israeli game and accused Israel of hampering its activities and restricting the movement of players between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, and the country's football association (IFA) has argued that it has no control over such matters. FIFA has been trying to settle the matter for more than two years.

One of the committee's tasks will be to monitor the freedom of players and officials to travel to and from the Palestinian territories.

“I'm very happy to start the process towards finding solutions,” said PFA president Jibril Rajoub in a FIFA statement.

His Israeli counterpart, Ofer Eini, added: “Both Mr Rajoub and I want fair conditions for our footballers.”

Sexwale, who declared this month that he was considering standing for the FIFA presidency, said he was “humbled” to chair the committee.

“This is not an easy task, but this meeting represents an important first step towards the consolidation of a regular exchange between the football associations of Israel and Palestine,” Sexwale said.

“I'm feeling confident after seeing the team spirit today, as both associations have confirmed their intention to promote dialogue.

“As we have witnessed in my home country South Africa, I'm convinced that here, too, we'll bring people together through the power of sport.”

Palestinians drop bid to suspend Israel from FIFA

The Palestinian soccer association withdrew its bid to have members of the FIFA world soccer body vote on whether to suspend Israel.

The head of the Palestine Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, on Friday said in announcing the move: “I thank those who convinced me to drop the suspension [of Israel]. The German president [Angela Merkel] spoke to me … this affected me,” The Guardian reported in ints online edition.

Rajoub spoke in Zurich, Switzerland, where delegates from FIFA’s 209 member states and federations convened for the body’s 65th congress, amid allegations that nine of its senior members were involved in a corruption and bribes scandal. Against this backdrop, reporters from around the world closely watched as the organization’s embattled president, Sepp Blatter, urged delegates to reelect him for a fifth term despite the corruption allegations.

Still, the Palestinian delegation’s threat to bring Israel’s proposed suspension to a vote also received extensive media coverage. The Palestinian Authority said it was pursuing this issue because Israel was limiting its players’ travel without justification and discriminating against them. Israel denied this, but agreed to introduce some concessions on freedom of travel.

However, no compromise was found on the Palestinians delegation’s demand that Israel’s soccer association suspend five teams from West Bank settlements.

Blatter and other soccer bosses opposed the Palestinian vote, calling it a politicization of the athletic field.

Ofer Eini, who heads the Israeli soccer association, proposed setting up a joint committee to “work out all the aspects” of the issues concerned after Rajoub’s announcement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Eini for his efforts to prevent suspension. “Our international effort has proven itself and led to the failure of the Palestinian Authority attempt to oust us from FIFA,” Netayahu wrote in a statement.

Before Rajoub’s announcement, a pro-Palestinian demonstrator was forcibly removed from the FIFA congress after she interrupted Blatter’s address by waving a Palestinian flag while chanting slogans. Blatter asked security to remove her, the Dutch De Telegraaf daily reported. Shortly thereafter, the hotel hosting the congress was partially evacuated due to a bomb threat, which turned out to be false. The people who reported the threat to police did not say whether it was connected to the scheduled vote on Israel.

“I look forward to the day in which Palestinians, like many others, are enjoying the benefits of the game. Let us look forward and be optimistic,” Rajoub also said. He added he has received threats over his decision to drop the suspension bid. “I might be dead in a year,” Rajoub said.

Blatter reportedly offered to bring the matter of the five settlement teams up to a vote at the United Nations, but Israel declined, citing a record of anti-Israel resolutions passed by the United Nations through what Israel has called “automatic majorities” against it.

Blatter, who has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to combat corruption in FIFA, is being challenged by Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein for the presidency of FIFA, the most powerful job in soccer.

How the FIFA corruption scandal could affect Israel

Israelis were expecting some big news to come out of the annual FIFA Congress this week.

But they probably weren’t expecting this.

In a bombshell operation, a Swiss law enforcement team showed up at the Zurich hotel hosting the annual gathering of the international soccer organization — and arrested nine senior officials.

The arrests come after decades of corruption allegations aimed at FIFA. (If you’re unfamiliar, comedian John Oliver’s got you covered.) The arrested officials face charges of taking money in exchange for World Cup hosting bids, as well taking bribes in exchange for media and marketing rights for major international tournaments.

The allegations are damning, but frankly, they couldn’t have come at a better time for Israel. Until Wednesday, much of the coverage of the FIFA Congress surrounded whether delegates would vote tosuspend Israel from world soccer. The Palestinian Football Association is introducing the motion to suspend Israel, accusing it of unjustly restricting Palestinian soccer players’ freedom of movement and claiming that Israel’s West Bank settlement teams violate FIFA rules. Israeli officials have called the effort blatantly political and said that the Palestinians’ complaints all concern Israel’s security forces — not Israel’s soccer teams.

For Israel to be suspended, three quarters of delegates would need to approve the motion. If that were a long shot before, it’s even more unlikely now.

Suspending the Jewish state from international play would have rocked world soccer’s boat, inviting allegations of anti-Semitism and double standards. Israel, to say the least, likely would not have gone quietly into the night.

Now, with FIFA’s boat already rocking, member states will probably be loath to pile one controversy on another. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, already opposed to Israel’s suspension (he met last week with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) is probably looking to avoid two crises on his hands at once.

Israel can even take comfort in historical precedent. When Netanyahu went to the White House in January 1998 to meet with President Clinton, he reportedly expected a tense meeting about the peace process. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke that day, leaving the president preoccupied.

With world soccer preoccupied and the eyes of the world elsewhere, this could be FIFA and Israel’s Monica moment.

Could Israel really be barred from world soccer?

Israel’s diplomatic battles have spread to the soccer field.

On May 29, FIFA, the body that governs world soccer, will vote on whether to suspend Israel from international play. FIFA’s 209-member countries will vote on a motion tabled by the Palestinian Football Association, which is calling for the suspension on claims that Israel is hindering Palestinian soccer and breaking international law.

Here’s what the Palestinians want, how Israel is fighting back, and how this could all shake out.

Palestinians want freedom of movement for soccer players, and to shut down settlement teams

The Palestinian Football Association, or PFA, says Israel is blocking its players from getting to games. Israeli security forces have blocked players and coaches from traveling to international matches, and haven’t allowed players to go between the West Bank and Gaza. Susan Shalabi, director of the PFA’s international department, told JTA that six top players were prevented from traveling to a match in 2010.

Israel, says Shalabi, is also preventing the Palestinian Authority from building soccer facilities. Since 2009, Shalabi says, Israel has prevented construction materials for a soccer field from entering the Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya.

“The decisions to let someone in or out were arbitrary,” Shalabi told JTA Tuesday. “There were always security reasons for the Israeli occupation to deny someone from coming.”

The PFA also claims that Israeli settlements’ soccer teams shouldn’t be allowed to play in Israel’s league, saying they’re located on Palestinian territory. Five such teams compete: Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, the Jordan Valley and Givat Ze’ev.

If the Palestinian motion passes, Israel would be barred from international soccer

When the Palestinian motion comes up for a FIFA vote, it will need a three-quarters majority to pass. And if it does, Israel’s individual soccer teams and its national team will be barred from playing official matches with teams from other countries.

Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport, and though Israel qualified for a World Cup tournament only once, in 1970, Israeli soccer teams frequently travel abroad for matches. Coming amid growing economic, academic and cultural boycott efforts against Israel, expulsion from international competition in the world’s most popular sport would be a sharp blow everyday Israelis.

Israel is pushing back by lobbying foreign governments and citing security threats

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been lobbying governments to oppose the motion on the grounds that it’s a political dispute unrelated to soccer.

Shlomi Barzel, the Israeli Soccer Association’s head of communications, told JTA that Israel sees the initiative as a way for Jibril Rajoub, a senior PA official and head of the PFA, to hurt Israel’s international standing. “Even the biggest Israel-hater in the world understands this has a political basis,” Barzel told JTA. “It’s not relevant.”

Barzel said the Palestinians’ complaints all concerned Israel’s security forces, not its soccer teams. He claimed that only one percent of all Palestinian soccer players are denied travel. When Israel denies exit, he said, it’s because the player in question is known to present a security risk.

Regarding settlement teams, Barzel said that as long as Israel considers the settlements its sovereign territory, the teams will be allowed to play in Israeli leagues.

In 2013, Netanyahu met with FIFA President Sepp Blatter to show him photographic evidence that, according to Israel, shows that Palestinian terror groups used soccer fields to launch rockets at Israel.

This isn’t the first time the two sides have clashed over soccer

Palestinian sports officials have long been railing against Israeli restrictions on their teams. In 2012, the head of the Palestinian Olympic delegation voiced similar complaints to JTA about freedom of movement. Two years ago, Blatter convened a meeting between the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian Soccer Associations, and created a task force to resolve the issue.

Those talks led to a 2013 FIFA proposal, mandating the PFA notify Palestinian and Israeli authorities of player movement 35 days in advance of travel, and then be given two more weeks to change their player list. But the proposal has failed to resolve the dispute.

In 2014, Rajoub threatened to put forth a motion to suspend Israel at that year’s FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo. But he backed off after FIFA resolved to continue working toward a resolution, appointing Cypriot soccer chief Costakis Koutsokoumnis to oversee the issue.

Shalabi said the Palestinians would withdraw the motion only if Israel meets the PFA’s demands. She said the Israel Football Association should criticize Israeli security restrictions when they interfere with Palestinian soccer.

Barzel supported Israel’s security policy, but said Israel wants to continue negotiating within FIFA’s framework. He added that Israel has repeatedly proposed a match between the Israeli and Palestinian national teams, because Israel believes “soccer can connect people.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter wants to strike a deal to prevent the vote.

Blatter will visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority Wednesday and Thursday, meeting with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas separately in hopes of finding a resolution.

Blatter has staked out a middle ground on the issue. He opposes Israel’s suspension and, like Israel, he supports continuing negotiations. But he also wrote in the May 15 issue of the FIFA Weekly magazine that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians.

“A solution is only a realistic proposition when those who are privileged are prepared to concede something and contribute to equality,” he wrote. “The onus in this respect is on Israel, with its outstanding infrastructure, fully functioning professional football league and economic context.”

Barzel thinks Blatter’s efforts will succeed. But Shalabi said she was “pessimistic.”

Blatter hopes to persuade Palestine FA to drop Israel complaint

FIFA president Sepp Blatter says he will attempt to persuade the Palestine Football Association to withdraw a bid to get Israel suspended from world football's governing body.

Blatter said he would meet with the association's president Jibril Rajoub in Cairo on Tuesday in an effort to convince him not to place a resolution on a possible Israeli suspension on the agenda for the FIFA Congress in Zurich next month.

“I will try to convince him that such a situation should not occur at FIFA,” Blatter told reporters after attending Tuesday's Confederation of African Football (CAF) Congress.

“A suspension of any member affects badly the whole organisation,” he added.

Palestine accuses Israel of continuing to hamper its football activities, frustrated at restrictions they say Israel imposes on the movement of their athletes between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The Palestinian Football Association also cited curbs Israel places on the import into Palestinian territories of sports equipment and on visits by foreign teams and individuals.

Blatter said he had been mandated to intervene in the dispute by FIFA's executive committee and two years ago established a task force which included himself, the Israeli and Palestinian soccer chiefs and the heads of the European and Asian soccer confederations to examine the Palestinian complaints and to try to resolve them.

Last year he persuaded Rajoub to drop a similar plan for the FIFA Congress in Sao Paulo, ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.

Last month, however, Rajoub said he had lost patience, and called on FIFA to show Israel “the red card.”

Israel cites security concerns for restrictions it imposes in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self rule, and along the border with the Hamas Islamist-run Gaza Strip.

It says it has eased travel for Palestinian athletes between the two territories, which requires passage via Israel.

In December, Rajoub called on FIFA to sanction Israel after Israeli troops entered the offices of the Palestine Football Association.

An army spokesman said at the time soldiers were seeking a wanted individual and were not targeting the premises because of its links to soccer.

The Palestinian draft resolution calls for Israel's suspension because its actions “inhibit our ability to develop the game”.

It also complains about racist behaviour towards Arab players by some Israeli fans.

The Palestinian Football Association said Israel was violating international law by including five clubs from Jewish settlements in the West Bank in their domestic league.

Amnesia, not admiration for Israel’s 1964 soccer heroes

Fifty years ago this week, a group of mostly blue-collar workers and army conscripts led Israel to its only senior international soccer title, winning the 1964 Asian Cup in front of rapturous home crowds.

The achievements of those amateur players, who would skip work to train for the national team, was part of a golden age of Israeli football that culminated in the country's solitary World Cup appearance in 1970, yet is largely forgotten at home.

The collective amnesia over the 1964 victory followed the 1973 Middle East war and Israel's expulsion from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) a year later.

Instead, Israelis now look to Europe, where the country is ranked 36th out of 53 UEFA members, while the 50th anniversary of the Asian Cup win comes days after Palestine qualified for the tournament from which Israel was forced from.

Israel had been Asian Cup runners-up to South Korea in 1956 and 1960 and the same duo were favourites for the 1964 tournament, for which Israel were hosts.

Hong Kong and India were other teams in the final group, which would play a round-robin format, while Arab and many Muslim countries had refused to play Israel following its formation in 1948.

“The players were very excited – for most of us those were our first official appearances in the national team uniforms,” said Itzik Visoker, Israel's goalkeeper, who was 19 at the time.

For local fans, it was a chance to see the national team against their continental rivals four years before the country's first television station began regular broadcasts in 1968.

“There was a completely different attitude – even now it's a young country, can you imagine 50 years back?” said Mordechai Spiegler, 69, Israel's record international goal scorer.

“We heard a lot about football in the world, but didn't have a real connection – we could only hear it on the radio. The game was popular, but we knew there were more important issues. To play football, it was not a profession.”

The entire squad played for domestic clubs, with the bulk of the 15 players appearing from three outfits – Maccabi Jaffa, Hapoel Petah Tikva and Hapoel Tel Aviv.


They were a mixture of local and foreign-born Jews, some from families whom had fled Europe before, during and after World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

Former centre-back Gideon Tish, 75, was born in Israel after his family emigrated from Poland in the early 20th century.

“It was a very difficult time, the family was living in one room – the parents and four brothers,” Tish said.

Most players were manual workers or in the army and they trained three afternoons a week.

“We just got small presents like to go to a restaurant and eat for free,” 70-year-old Bulgarian-born former central defender Moshe Leon said. “We played with the heart, not for the money.”

Israel's coach, the late Yosef Merimovich, a Cypriot-born Jew, took charge of his first match – a 4-0 defeat to an England under-23 side including future World Cup winner Geoff Hurst – nine days before the tournament.

“He was a wonderful man, very straightforward, one of the idols of Israeli football,” Spiegler said of Merimovich, who died in 2011. “He was somebody for whom the flag meant a lot.”

Against Hong Kong in the tournament's opening game on May 26, Israel dominated in front of a 25,000 crowd at Tel Aviv's National Stadium, but struggled to make a breakthrough until Spiegler bundled home with 14 minutes left.

Three days later, Israel beat India 2-0 with Spiegler netting a penalty before Yemen-born forward Yohai Aharoni drifted in from the right wing to finish from close range and delight the 22,000 crowd at Jaffa's Bloomfield Stadium.

That meant Israel needed just a draw against South Korea on June 3 to be champions and the National Stadium was a 50,000 sell-out. All matches were played in the afternoon as floodlights were not yet available.

“We were confident we were going to win – they were about the same level as we were,” said Tish, a then bus mechanic.

Defensive pair Leon and Tish put Israel 2-0 up by halftime, the former beating several players before finishing from distance and the latter dispatching a 20-metre free-kick.

In between those goals, South Korea had a player sent off and although the outgoing champions pulled a goal back, Israel held on to win 2-1 and spark raucous celebrations.

“It was a carnival, a festival,” said Asher Goldberg, an Israeli football historian who attended Israel's three matches.

Israel was among the dominant forces in Asian football in the 1960s, winning four straight under-19 championships from 1964 to 1967 and finishing third at the 1968 Asian Cup in Iran.

“It was the first step to get into world football – they (the fans) were very proud, but in those days the football wasn't so important because we were always busy with the wars,” said Amatsia Levkovich, then a 26-year-old midfielder.

“In my life I've passed through seven wars. We still don't know if there will be another one. It was important to represent the country, to hear Hatikva (the national anthem) in Asia.”

Spiegler said Israel's senior Asian Cup triumph was the springboard for it to reach the 1970 World Cup, although he was one of only three players along with Visoker and defender David Primo from 1964 to be in what was a youthful squad in Mexico.


Israel led a nomadic football existence following its expulsion from the AFC in 1974 until joining UEFA in 1994.

This exile from football's regional confederations meant Israel sometimes went four years without a competitive senior fixture, while it did not play a single game in 1982, the year of Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

Israel has not qualified for a major tournament since 1970.

“Now we belong to Europe, I don't think we have a chance,” said Levkovich, who was Israel's assistant coach in Mexico, where the team earned draws against Sweden and eventual runners-up Italy and lost 2-0 to semi-finalists Uruguay.

“The level of football in Asia has developed, but it doesn't belong to us.”

Spiegler said it was not a lack of talent that had prevented Israel from making more of a mark internationally.

“Good players are talking football but they don't bring it to the field, they don't know the difference between individual and collective sport,” said Spiegler, who emigrated to Israel from Russia's Ural Mountains in 1949 and played for Paris St Germain and New York Cosmos, where Pele was a team mate.

“We were a national team, but played as a club. We took away ego, worked hard.”

Yet despite those memories, the surviving 1964 squad members do not plan to mark the 50th anniversary of their triumph.

“It was a moment of happiness, of glorious celebration, a moment we take with us forever,” added Spiegler.

Reporting by Matt Smith in Dubai; Editing by John O'Brien

Netanyahu shows soccer chief photos of rocket launchers at Gaza stadium [VIDEO]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed the president of the international soccer federation proof that Palestinian soccer fields are being used to launch rockets at Israel.

Netanyahu met Tuesday with FIFA President Joseph Blatter a day after Blatter visited sites in the West Bank, including the opening of the new offices of the Palestine Football Association near Ramallah.

Netanyahu showed Blatter aerial photographs from Nov. 16, 2012 that reveal long-range Fajr-5 missile launch sites in the Gaza soccer stadium. Netanyahu also showed Blatter a video from March 10, 2012 of a match between the Israeli soccer teams of Beersheva and Um Al-Fahm being halted due to rocket fire at the stadium.

“This is a double war crime,” Netanyahu said. “You’re firing on civilians and you’re hiding behind civilians.”

The Israeli leader also referred to recent media interviews with Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub in which Rajoub said that if the Palestinians had an atomic bomb, they would have already used it on Israel and that Israel is the enemy of the Palestinian people.

During his West Bank visit, Blatter said he would speak to Israeli political leaders about easing travel restrictions on Palestinian players between the West Bank and Gaza.

“I will go to defend not only the Palestine Football Association but I will defend the basic principles of FIFA, (which are) to connect people and not to separate people,” Blatter said.

He added that the principles are “to recognize each other through football and to live not only in peace but in harmony.”

Rajoub said at his meeting with Blatter that if the issue of travel of Palestinian players  is not resolved satisfactorily, he will ask the FIFA Congress to expel Israel.

Soccer tourney brings Arabs, Jews together

Despite the summer heat radiating off of the soccer field, dozens of former professional soccer players from all over the world — and of varying faiths — gathered to play a friendly “Soccer Peace Tournament” on June 2 at Calabasas High School.

As athletes sprinted and fans cheered, one voice could be heard above all else. It was the biting commentary of Zouheir Bahloul, who good-naturedly teased each player during the four matches of the day.

One of the most recognizable stars of the Israeli soccer community, Bahloul is a former player who now is famous for his colorful commentary and sports journalism. As an Israeli Palestinian, he is passionate about using soccer to promote peace and coexistence between Arabs, Israelis and Americans — a triumvirate that’s had its fair share of conflict throughout the years.

So he was thrilled to be part of an event that matched up former members of the Israeli national soccer team with teams made up of local players — a U.S. team as well as teams made up of American Afghanis and American Iranians (winners of the tournament). All of the participants once played professionally.

“I think there is a lot of value within this [Israeli] team and this tournament,” Bahloul said. “Our team is a mix of Arabs and Jews playing together, coexisting together, cooperating together and living together. I think this is a very noble example of how we can solve our problems with sports, because sports are very pure.” 

The peace tournament was organized by Ben Drillings, a chiropractor who lives in Chatsworth, and sponsored by the Israeli American Council (IAC), formerly the Israeli Leadership Council.

“I was a soccer player on the Israeli national team and played with Rifaat Tourk, the first Arab and Muslim to play on the Israeli national team. … We became friends but haven’t seen each other in 31 years,” Drillings said. “But we got in touch, and we thought this tournament would be the beginning of another peace effort here.”

Tourk, who lives in Jaffa and coached the Israeli team in the tournament, has spent his entire post-soccer career working on building relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel. 

“I have a foundation for kids that has Arab kids working besides Jewish kids in order to make mixed life possible,” Tourk said. “I try my best to move these kids forward, socially, to make them share life — each beside the other.”

Dikla Kadosh, director of community events and volunteering for the IAC, said that is exactly the goal the group set out to accomplish.

“There’s not much at stake, but we wanted to create an environment of peace by playing against local Iranian teams and Afghani teams,” Kadosh said. “And the reason we wanted to be involved is because it’s something different. The whole mission of the IAC is to create programming that connects people to one another, and to the culture in Israel, and soccer is part of the culture.”

Qadir Latifi, one of the veteran Afghani players who participated in the tournament, was excited to take part in something with so many nationalities represented. 

“Our team has played in tournaments before, but it was mostly just Afghans. We’ve never played in a tournament that’s more international,” Latifi said, “so I’m proud to know that we’re going to be able to play for our country, and everyone else is playing for their countries.”

Although the Israeli team was the only one in the tournament that had to travel — the other three teams are based in Los Angeles and play together in adult community leagues — it still meant a lot to everyone involved for these communities to be playing together under the banner of peace. 

“I think it will help build better relationships within the communities out here,” said Shaul Maimon, captain of the Israeli team. “Football [soccer] brings everyone together. Anyone can play, so it makes for good relationships between people, and maybe, I hope, for the countries.”

This tournament also helped to break gender barriers. Diana Redman, the first female member of the Israeli national team, made an appearance as well. 

“I saw something for the event in a magazine and e-mailed Ben [Drillings] and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Come on and join us!’ ” Redman said.

“It was really wonderful to be playing here as part of the event today,” she continued. “It’s the kind of thing I like to be involved in. I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, and I hope people are reminded that we have a women’s team, and there are a lot of people out there who want to do these kinds of events.”

Bahloul believes the stakes are high — much higher than a single soccer game.

“We are here,” he said, “to prove to ourselves and others that we can make it together and set a good example for the new generation.”

Desmond Tutu urges UEFA to strip Israel of Under-21 championship

South African anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu has joined calls for UEFA to move the Under-21 European championship from Israel because of the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinian sport.

UEFA has resisted the requests but Tutu's letter, to Britain's Guardian newspaper, which was also signed by ex-Mali striker Frederic Kanoute and a number of prominent sympathisers of the Palestinian cause, is aimed at increasing the pressure.

Last week UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, speaking after the UEFA Congress in London, refused to condemn Israel or accept that the competition, which runs from June 5-18, should be moved.

Infantino told a news conference: “UEFA and the Israeli FA is responsible for football, it cannot be held responsible for the politics of a national government.

“And we have no plans to move the tournament, which is being held legitimately in a UEFA member association.”

After last week's Congress, pro-West Bank demonstrators broke into a banquet being held for UEFA delegates, interrupting proceedings, but were removed by security officers.

Palestinians complain that Israeli authorities restrict the movement of their athletes between the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas faction that calls for Israel's destruction, and the West Bank in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah group exercises limited civilian rule.

Israel limits the movement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank citing security concerns but says it has eased travel for athletes.

UEFA, European soccer's governing body, last week agreed tougher sanctions to combat racism among players and officials and the authors of the letter feel the same standards should be applied to Israel.

Tutu's letter read: “On Friday, delegates from European football associations gathered in a London hotel for UEFA's annual congress. They agreed new, strict guidelines to deal with racism, suggesting a commendable determination to combat discrimination in the sport.

“We find it shocking that this same organisation shows total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women by Israel.

“We call on UEFA, even at this late stage, to reverse the choice of Israel as a venue.”

The Israeli FA has consistently said that UEFA will not bring political issues into the soccer arena.

Tutu, 81, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for standing up against white-minority rule in South Africa.

He played a pivotal role in the downfall of apartheid and subsequently worked to heal wounds in South Africa's traumatised society.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Mike Collett. Writing by Mark Meadows, editing by Tony Goodson

Maccabi Tel Aviv back on top but coach future uncertain

Champions Maccabi Tel Aviv have reasserted their dominance of Israeli soccer but media reports on Tuesday suggested they might have to continue their revival without coach Oscar Garcia.

The country's wealthiest club lost 3-0 to Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv in the final fixture of the season on Monday, but it mattered little as Maccabi had clinched a record 20th league title a month ago.

They pushed 2011 champions Maccabi Haifa into second place to celebrate their first championship since 2003.

The $30 million annual budget that Canadian owner Mitch Goldhar set for Maccabi paid off after three seasons of disappointment, and his decision to pair manager Garcia and technical manager Jordi Cruyff was vindicated.

A Maccabi source said next season's budget, an unprecedented sum for an Israeli soccer club, would remain similar to this season's, giving the club a strong chance of extending its success.

But speculation about Garcia's future has begun, with Israeli media reporting that the former Barcelona youth team coach might leave.

Reports suggested Garcia told his players following Monday's loss that he might not be back next season, saying he could return to Spain. The club declined to comment.

Cruyff told Maccabi's website that next season — when Maccabi will play in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League — would herald a fresh start.

“Next season we will all start from zero so it is very important that we are well prepared, because we will need to do a lot to stay at the top … We will try to continue to improve in every aspect of our game,” Cruyff said.

Editing by Stephen Wood

Beitar Jerusalem fans walk out on Muslim player’s goal

Hundreds of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team walked out of the stadium in the wake of the first goal scored by a Muslim player.

The walkout occurred Sunday night during a game against Maccabi Netanya, which ended in a 1-1 tie. The team has lost four of its past five games.

Forward Zaur Sadayev, a Chechen Muslim who recently joined the team, scored in the second half of the game. He was cheered by the majority of the Beitar Jerusalem fans that remained in the stands.

Two players from the Chechen Terek Gorzny team joined Beitar Jerusalem at the beginning of February, amid protests from nationalist fans.

In recent weeks, fans have been removed from games for chanting anti-Arab and racist slogans.

75 Israeli soccer fans ejected over racist chanting

Some 75 Israeli soccer fans were removed from a game between Beitar Jerusalem and the Israeli-Arab Bnei Sakhnin team for anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim taunting.

Police removed an equal number of fans from each team — many before Sunday's match at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem even started — according to reports. Hundreds of police were called in to secure some 9,000 spectators for the game.

Fans of the two teams have clashed in the past. In addition, Beitar Jerusalem fans over the past two weeks have protested the recent hiring of two Muslim players from the Chechen Terek Gorzny team.

While many Beitar Jerusalem fans shouted for the new Muslim players to “go home,” some cheered loudly when one of the two new players, Gabriel Kadiev, took the field and each time he touched the ball, according to reports.

The game ended in a 2-2 tie.

On Feb. 8, arsonists set fire to the trophy room of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team following the indictment of four fans for anti-Muslim hate speech.

Hours before the match, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israeli soccer fans to reject racism.

“The last thing we want, and which we absolutely reject is violence, racism and boycotts. These are unacceptable to us. I say this in regards to a team that I have supported for years, Beitar Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said Sunday morning at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting. “Lately, we have seen displays of extremism that we find unacceptable. These must be uprooted from the public sphere and, of course, from the world of sports.”

Beitar arson attack linked to racial incitement

A suspected arson attack damaged the main club house of Israeli Premier League side Beitar Jerusalem on Friday, a day after four fans were charged in court in connection with racist incitement against the team's recruitment of Muslim players, police said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the fire, which caused no injuries, caused “extensive damage” to the premises next to the team's main training grounds. Reuters television footage showed trophies and other memorabilia were destroyed.

“Initial findings show the blaze was caused by a number of suspects” and police were investigating a possible link to protests over the team's signing up of two Chechen Muslim players last month, Rosenfeld said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the violence, saying in a statement on Friday: “This behavior is shameful. We must not accept such racist behavior.”

He added: “The Jewish people which has suffered from boycotts and persecution, should serve as a light unto other nations.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said police would take “a heavy hand to put an end to this issue,” and praised the club for what he saw as steps toward “fighting racism and violence”.

The Israel Football Association (IFA) said that soccer's world governing body FIFA had requested clarification following racist chanting by fans at a league fixture last month against the Chechen players.

A Jerusalem court had indicted four fans on Thursday for involvement in that incitement, police said.

The club has also been disciplined for that incident and were ordered to close the Teddy Kollek Stadium's 7,000-seat eastern grandstand, where hard core supporters sit, for five matches. They also received a 50,000 shekels ($13,500) fine.

Beitar are a bastion of Israel's political right wing and the only leading team in the country never to have signed an Arab player because of fan pressure.

They have the worst disciplinary record in Israel's Premier League. Since 2005, Beitar have faced more than 20 hearings and have received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors.

Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of Israel's population of almost eight million. Arab players feature prominently at all other clubs and have long been included in Israel's national team.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by John O'Brien

Former Israel national soccer coach Emanuel Sheffer dies at 88

Emanuel Sheffer – the coach who led Israel to their only World Cup finals in Mexico in 1970 – died on Friday aged 88, the Israel Football Association said.

German-born Sheffer was described by Israeli FA chairman Avi Luzon as “the greatest of all Israeli coaches whose influence on the Israeli game and its development was decisive”. He also led Israel to the quarter-finals of the 1968 Olympic tournament.

A tough taskmaster who put a strong emphasis on physical fitness, Sheffer was credited by one of his charges for replacing old-style amateur practices with a far more professional approach.

“He was an innovator and insisted on three training sessions every day with demands that I don't know if today's players would even be able to withstand,” said Yitzhak Shum, who played under Sheffer in Mexico and went on to become a top coach.

Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Mark Meadows

Soccer matches in southern Israel cancelled due to Gaza fighting

The Israel Football Association have called off two Premier League matches set for Saturday due to current conflict between Israel and Gaza.

The matches between Hapoel Beersheba and Hapoel Ramat Gan, and Ashdod SC and Hapoel Acre were postponed after the police and the military barred large gatherings because of a fear of rocket strikes by Palestinian militants.

The latest phase of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict sharpened on Wednesday when Israel killed Ahmed Jabari, the military mastermind of Islamist faction Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Following Jabari's assassination in a precision air strike on his car, more than 270 rockets hit Israel and it shelled the Gaza Strip from land, air and sea. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday and 19 Palestinians have died.

The Israeli FA said the rest of the weekend league program, thought to be largely out of range of the rockets, would go ahead as planned. Lower league and junior fixtures in the south of the country were also cancelled.

Editing by Greg Stutchbury

Israeli soccer team under ‘severe threat’ in Hungary, coach says

The Israeli national soccer team was warned of a “severe threat” to their safety in Budapest where they played a friendly match against Hungary on Wednesday, Israel’s coach said.

After returning to Tel Aviv on Thursday, coach Eli Guttman said the Israeli delegation had been warned by security officials that they were at risk in Budapest.

“I don’t know how much was known about this in Israel, the players were aware, but there were very severe warnings of a possible attack,” Guttman told reporters at Ben Gurion airport.

No major security incidents were reported during the match at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium in the Hungarian capital which ended in a 1-1 draw.

Guttman gave no give further details. Hungarian police said the Israeli team, which had their own security detail, had not been under threat but did not elaborate.

“There was no terror threat towards the Israeli soccer players,” police spokeswoman Bettina Kovacs said.

Guttman said that after the match, the team’s official bus left the stadium empty, as a decoy, and the players were taken to their hotel in another bus later.

“Our bus was sent out of the stadium after the match with a police escort and sirens sounding so that people would think it was us. We were asked to stay behind and we left later in a bus with the blinds drawn,” Guttman said.

Israelis traveling abroad are regularly told to lower their profile and be aware of potential threats to reduce risks to their safety.

Last month a suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists when he blew up a bus in a Bulgarian resort city on the Black Sea.

In 1972, 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and judges were killed after being taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen at the Munich Olympics.

Additional reporting by Krisztina Than and Sandor Peto in Budapest, Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Robert Woodward

Netanyahu injures leg playing soccer with Jewish, Arab youth

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu injured his leg during a soccer match with Jewish and Arab youth.

Netanyahu pulled a tendon in his leg during the Monday afternoon game in Jerusalem, Walla! News reported.  The prime minister slipped on the grass, rose and continued to play and scored a goal, according to Walla!

Netanyahu’s personal physician, Dr. Tzvi Berkowitz, examined the prime minister and diagnosed the pulled tendon, according to the news website. The injury caused the postponement of a Likud Party meeting.

Improving Germany beat Israel in final Euro warm-up

Germany worked hard for a 2-0 win over Israel in a Euro 2012 warm-up match on Thursday with Mario Gomez and Andre Schuerrle on target in their final test before next month’s tournament.

The three-time European champions, among the title favorites, dominated with a performance that was a marked improvement on their 5-3 defeat by Switzerland on Saturday.

However, they wasted close to a dozen clear chances on a rainy evening in Leipzig as they prepare for the finals being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.

Germany face Portugal on June 9 in their first match in Group B which also includes Netherlands and Denmark.

“We can say this was a decent final test of our preparation and will give us a bit of a boost,” said coach Joachim Loew, who is leading Germany for a third major tournament.

“Obviously not everything worked well yet. It is clear we could have scored more goals but to go with a win into next week is good for us,” he told reporters.

“We will improve, the tempo at the tournament will be higher, in the second half we squandered six or seven chances… so there is still a bit to work on.”

With Bastian Schweinsteiger ruled out with a nagging thigh injury, Toni Kroos partnered Sami Khedira in a holding midfield role.


Captain Philipp Lahm switched from his usual right back position to left back with central defender Jerome Boateng playing on the right where he is less comfortable.

The Germans, as expected, took the initiative in constant pouring rain but had to wait 20 minutes for their first clear chance when Boateng rattled the post with a curled left-foot shot as Israel defended in numbers.

Gomez broke the deadlock five minutes before halftime, picking up a Thomas Mueller pass in the box and firing high into the net for his 22nd international goal in 52 appearances.

Germany keeper Manuel Neuer was called into action twice soon after the break to rescue the hosts before they upped the tempo again, missing several chances with Lukas Podolski and Mueller among the culprits.

Substitute Schuerrle grabbed their deserved second goal eight minutes from time, rifling home from 20 meters as Germany won their first match this year after two defeats.

“We had some good combinations, allowed nothing to happen at the back,” said Lahm. “We (Bayern players) had not played for 12 days, we had only three days of training with the team so not everything can work instantly. That’s normal.”

“We’ll be fully fit when the tournament starts,” added Lahm who along with his club team mates had been given some rest after losing to Chelsea in the Champions League final.

Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris

Jerusalem fans’ violence highlights dark side of soccer

Sports fans aren’t the only people lately paying attention to Israeli soccer. A string of ugly incidents has caused Israelis to focus on the problems of violence and racism within the sport.

In mid-March, thousands of Hapoel Tel Aviv fans rioted on the field after their team lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv. A few days later, two fans of Maccabi Petach Tikvah attempted to attack a referee. In late March, a Hapoel Haifa player was hospitalized after being head-butted by a Maccabi Petach Tikvah coach and then kicked in the head by a team associate.

But the event that drew the most attention had happened a few days earlier, when more than 100 fans of Beitar Jerusalem stormed from their home base in Teddy Stadium after a game to the nearby Malha Mall, where they chanted racist slurs and some reportedly beat Arab mall workers.

News reports quoted sources decrying the “pogrom” and “lynch” against the Arabs, and some commentators made comparisons with anti-Semitism in Europe and the recent murders at the Jewish school in Toulouse, France. Some sports writers called for sanctions by international athletic organizations or for dismantling the Beitar Jerusalem club, whose fans have a longstanding reputation for racism and violence.

Israeli police say that the news reports exaggerated the incident, though they have since made arrests.

“There was no ‘lynch’ and no ‘pogrom,’ “ Jerusalem District police spokesman Shmulik Ben-Ruby said. “The incident has been blown out of all proportion.”

But Dorit Abramowich, coordinator for Shutafut-Sharakah, the Arab-Jewish Coalition for Shared Democracy, says the violence at the mall is indicative of a larger problem.

“Israel is in the midst of a racism plague, and the events at the mall are part of an intense series of events in which threats, intimidation and humiliation of Arabs is becoming accepted behavior,” she said. “I am saddened that the police and the leadership of Beitar Jerusalem are not more concerned and seem not to understand that words lead to actions.”

The story first made headlines several days after the March 19 incident, when video footage surfaced on the Internet showing masses of Beitar Jerusalem fans at the mall chanting, “Death to Arabs.”

Exactly what happened next is unclear. Haaretz reported that some fans harassed a group of Arab women in the mall’s food court and were chased away by broomstick-wielding Arab janitors. According to Haaretz, the fans returned and attacked the Arab workers. A shopkeeper told the paper that Arab workers were thrown against store windows and beaten.

“They came looking to have a fight with us,” a Palestinian janitor at the mall, who identified himself only as Ahmed, said. “When we tried to defend ourselves, they ran away, but then came back and tried to attack us.”

Police eventually broke up the melee but did not initially make any arrests because they said no complaints were filed.

On April 3, police released some 51 seconds of security surveillance footage from the mall that showed three Arab workers wielding sticks at some screaming fans, who fled. Ben-Ruby said police have arrested some 19 fans, against whom charges will be pressed, while another 20 have been banned from the games for two and a half years.

The incident has reinforced Beitar Jerusalem’s bad reputation within Israeli sports.

“We condemn all physical and verbal violence,” Asaf Shaked, a spokesman for Beitar Jerusalem, said. “But there is a stigma against the fans of Beitar Jerusalem, and that’s why this incident has attracted so much media attention.”

Like most sports clubs established during the mandate and early state periods, the team grew out of a political party. Hapoel teams were drawn from the labor-socialist movements, Maccabi teams were allied with the non-socialist groups, and Beitar was an outgrowth of the revisionist Zionist youth movement, founded in 1923 by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

While Hapoel teams represented the establishment, Beitar’s earliest players were members of the right-wing undergrounds. Subsequently, after the establishment of the state, Beitar teams became linked to Herut, the right-wing party led by Menachem Begin that was the forerunner to the present-day Likud.

Beitar Jerusalem has won six national championships and played in numerous European competitions. It counts many prominent politicians and businessmen, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, from the left and the right, among its supporters.

But its core fans are traditionally oriented, right-wing, working-class males often from Sephardic backgrounds who tend to define themselves as outsiders against what they see as a left-wing establishment.

In 2005, hundreds of these diehard fans established the La Familia organization to support the team. Members of the group are largely responsible for the numerous penalties that have been imposed on the team.

La Familia members brazenly flaunt symbols of the outlawed racist Kach Party founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. They fill the eastern bleachers of Teddy Stadium dressed in their team’s yellow and black. screaming curses at Arabs and anyone they identify as a leftist. Most infamously, several years ago they booed during a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“We are in a dialogue with La Familia, and we believe that, thanks to that dialogue, the racist, violent behavior is decreasing,” Shaked said.

Social psychologist Itsik Alfasi, a self-described “diehard, forever true supporter of Beitar Jerusalem,” says the combination of class and ethnic protest, social alienation, popular religion and simple patriotism produces the racism inside and outside of the stadiums.

But he insists that “La Familia and their like represent a minority of the team. Most of the fans are working hard to get rid of this behavior, not only because it’s immoral but because it’s hurting us, too.”

University of Haifa sociologist Oz Almog points out that throughout Israel, Arabs are playing a major role in Israeli soccer’s Premier League.

“In contrast to the image of Israel as a racist society, soccer is actually a social equalizer, where Arabs cheer Jews and Jews cheer Arabs,” he said. “This could have a tremendously positive effect on the entire society.”

In fact, six Arabs are now playing on Hapoel Ironi, the little team that could from Kiryat Shemona, the northern development town known mostly because it has been a frequent target of Hezbollah rocket fire. The team recently won this year’s national championship.

Beitar, in contrast, has never had an Arab player. Shaked, the Beitar spokesman, said that if a “suitably talented Arab player were to come up, we would definitely consider him for the team.” But in the past when Arab players were suggested, their names were quickly withdrawn in the face of the vociferous and crude objections of the La Familia fans.

Almog, who describes himself as a “sworn soccer fan who goes to games every week,” said that in contrast to the recent incidents, overall violence in soccer is decreasing throughout Israel, and even within Beitar Jerusalem.

“We also have to remember that the anti-Arab rhetoric takes place in the context of the very real Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the terrorist attacks, especially in Jerusalem,” Almog said.

He acknowledges, however, that there is a point at which the rhetoric crosses a line and must be dealt with strictly.

“Calling for ‘death to the Arabs’ or screaming ‘Mohammed is a pig,’ like some of the fans of Beitar Jerusalem do, is violence and must be stopped,” he said. “This kind of behavior would never be tolerated anywhere else. … But the Israeli police are weak and don’t enforce the law, and when they finally do, the judicial system hands out ludicrously lenient punishments.”

Ben-Ruby counters that the police are making “successful efforts to combat the violence.”

But Abramowich of the Arab-Jewish coalition argues that the Israeli government has not taken the necessary action to combat racism in general.

“Beitar Jerusalem’s behavior toward Arabs is an anomaly among soccer teams, but it is not an exception within Israeli society,” she said. “And I would have hoped that all of our leaders, including the prime minister, would denounce this violence, because as Jews, we know where it can lead. But they have not.”

Palestinian soccer player injured in Israeli post-game brawl

A Palestinian member of an Israeli soccer team was knocked out during a brawl at the end of a game.

Ali Khatib of Hapoel Haifa, who also plays for the Palestinian national team, was hit in the face and kicked while he was on the ground, allegedly by members of the Maccabi Petach Tikvah team’s management, at the end of Saturday night’s game.

The blow reportedly knocked out Khatib; he was treated at a nearby hospital and released. He also reportedly lost several teeth in the altercation.

Footage from a local television crew showed that the attackers reportedly were Maccabi’s goalie coach and another team official. The two remained in police custody following the incident.

The attack comes two weeks after hundreds of fans from the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team chanting anti-Arab slogans assaulted Arab workers at a Jerusalem shopping mall following a local game. Sixteen fans were arrested; six were banned from future games.

Iranian soccer club won’t play Serbian team with Israeli coach

An Iranian soccer team canceled a game against a Serbian club because its coach is Israeli.

Avram Grant, who last month was named manager of the Partizan Belgrade soccer club, said in a statement on the team’s website that he had been told “unofficially” that Friday’s match against Sepahan Isfahan in Turkey had been canceled because he was Israeli, ESPN reported. Grant called the decision “shameful.”

The team reportedly had to switch its winter training camp from Dubai to Antalya, Turkey, because Grant is Israeli.

Grant was formerly the manager for British soccer clubs Chelsea, Portsmouth and West Ham United.

Faltering Maccabi Tel Aviv sack coach Iwanir

Maccabi Tel Aviv sacked coach Motti Iwanir on Monday after he failed to improve the fortunes of Israel’s biggest club having been in the job for almost a year.

“In view of the run of recent bad results (owner) Mitch Goldhar has informed coach Iwanir that his contract with the club will be terminated,” Maccabi said in a statement on their website.

Maccabi are Israel’s richest club but Canadian owner Goldhar’s investment of some $35 million on players has failed to yield the desired results against major rivals under Iwanir.

The club’s 2-0 defeat by Hapoel Haifa on Sunday was a fifth consecutive outing without a league win. They lie ninth in the 16-team Premier League, 10 points behind leaders Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Iwanir, a former Israel under-21 coach and midfielder for Maccabi, was appointed in January.

Maccabi finished third in the league last season and qualified for the Europa League but have no chance of advancing from Group E as they are rooted firmly to the bottom with four defeats and a draw.

Experienced Yitzhak Shum, a former coach of Maccabi Haifa who also led Greece’s Panathinaikos to a league and cup double in 2004, has been mentioned by local media as a leading candidate to succeed Iwanir.

Editing by Sonia Oxley; To query or comment on this story email

FIFA says non-Israeli can play for Israel

FIFA has given a Druze Arab from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights permission to play for Israel even though he is not a citizen of the country, the Israel FA said.

Maccabi Haifa’s Weaam Amasha is the leading Israeli league scorer this season with 12 goals from 13 matches and he has notched six in European club competition but he was unable to play for Israel because he does not own a passport.

He was born in the Golan Heights territory which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981 in a move that has not been recognised internationally.

Golan Druze are entitled to Israeli citizenship since the annexation, but most of them, including Amasha, have not taken up the offer, citing historic links to Syria. Amasha goes overseas with Maccabi Haifa on an Israeli-issued travel document which is not a full passport.

“FIFA have decided to take the special case into consideration and will allow (Amasha) to play for the national team without a passport,” an Israeli FA statement said.

Amasha told reporters on Thursday that he was pleased a solution had been found.

“I have been waiting for this news for a long time and like any player, I want to improve and play at the highest level. Now I must wait to be called up,” Amasha said.

Amasha will have to wait to see if he is called up as no national squad announcement are imminent before Israel name a coach for their World Cup qualifying campaign starting next year.

The contract of current coach Luis Fernandez ends in June and is not expected to be renewed.

Writing by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Ed Osmond

Israel soccer team playing in Turkey, despite tensions

An Israeli soccer team arrived in Istanbul to play a Turkish team, despite tensions between the two countries.

The Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team landed Wednesday night amid heavy security. Turkish protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted anti-Israel slogans outside the hotel in which the Israeli team is staying ahead of Thursday evening’s Europa League game against Besiktas at İnonu Stadium in Istanbul.

The team was instructed to remain inside the hotel and wait for armed escorts to take them to practice and the game.

Hundreds of Israeli fans had been expected to attend the game before rising tensions between Israel and Turkey came to a head in recent days. Only a handful of fans reportedly arrived in Turkey with the team.

Thoughts on basketball and Israel

Early Sunday morning on Mothers Day, as my brother and I prepared breakfast for our mom, I also prepared myself for the special day ahead. In addition to celebrating my mom, my family would also gather in our den to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play Greece’s Panathinaikos for the Euroleague’s Basketball Championship. Proudly wearing my Maccabi t-shirt, I thought how strange it felt that on the day we are watching Maccabi compete for the European basketball championship, that night, we would attend the Israeli Consulate’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony.

As we watched Maccabi fight valiantly on the court, unfortunately coming up short, I thought how incredible it is that a team from a small Jewish country in the Middle East was playing in the European championship for an amazing 14th time, trying to win it’s sixth championship. What is it about Israel that drives it to succeed against all odds? How does such a small country continue to achieve global success in so many fields? The answer to my question would begin at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony, and would continue throughout the week, on an emotional journey from LA to Washington, D.C.

At the Yom Hazikaron ceremony, I listened to incredible stories of courage and self-sacrifice that took place on battlefields where the stakes were much higher than a basketball championship. That night, images of Israelis battling on a basketball court were replaced with images of Israelis fighting on the Golan Heights.

The next morning, my Hebrew language teacher at YULA spent class talking about childhood friends who were killed in wars. At our school’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony, the Bnei Akiva shaliach, and my father, spoke about the painful experiences of attending military funerals. Listening to all of this, I thought how incredible it is that a society that has experienced so much pain nevertheless has the strength to move on and succeed.

The transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut helped strengthen my understanding of things. At school, in the same room where we observed Yom Hazikaron, we now celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut with Israeli food, music, and dancing. Our school held an “Israel Talent Show,” where I sang an Israeli pop song from the 80’s called “Milim Yafot” by Gazoz. I won! It felt great to win, but this contest was more than about winning. By singing an Israeli pop song whose Hebrew lyrics are pure fun, it was my way of celebrating a society that – despite her many wars – still has the spirit to develop a cool and hip music scene.

Straight from the talent show, I rushed to the Skirball Museum for the Israeli Consulate’s Yom Ha’atzmaut reception. I arrived early for the final rehearsal of a medley of Israeli songs that I would sing together with Hedva Amrani and Noa Dori. As we took the stage, with Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and 800 others watching, I looked out at the crowd and recognized so many smiling faces that were weeping just two nights earlier.  I opened the medley with the words “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” (I Have No Other Land), a song that represents a deep connection to Israel no matter what the circumstances.

From the Skirball, my father and I went to the airport and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., invited my father to attend the Israeli Embassy’s Yom Ha’atzmaut reception, and my father took me along. The reception was Thursday night, and we spent all day Thursday visiting the Holocaust Museum. We journeyed back to the dark years of Auschwitz, when anti-Semitism and genocide ruled the world. I saw what it looked like to be a homeless and defenseless Jew. I touched bunk beds from Auschwitz, walked through a train car used to transport kids my age to death camps, saw displays of hair, glasses and shoes, and looked at gruesome photos of death and destruction.

From this haunting experience, we went back to our hotel room, changed into dressy clothes, and went to the Andrew Mellon Auditorium. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s national monuments, just minutes from the White House and Capitol Hill, the Mellon Auditorium would host over one thousand diplomats, military attaches, members of congress, administration officials, honored guests – and me(!) – all there to celebrate Israel’s 63rd birthday. I contemplated where I was all day, and where I stood that night, and I remarked to my father, “Who could have imagined that just sixty-six years after the end of the Holocaust, a crowd of over one thousand of some of the most powerful people in the world would gather in Washington, D.C. to celebrate a tiny Jewish state’s independence?” When Michael Oren spoke, he compared the downing of Osama Bin-Laden with Israel’s daring rescue operation in Entebbe.

With Ambassador Oren’s words, everything became crystal clear to me. Whether it’s straight out of the ashes of the Holocaust, on the battlefield defending Israel, in rescue missions to save Israelis, in humanitarian efforts in Haiti, in science labs that produce Nobel prizes, film productions that lead to Oscar nominations, in the streets of Tel Aviv, or on the basketball court, there is one character trait that Israelis share in common – persistence. It is this persistence that built the Jewish state, and it continues to drive Israelis to succeed against all odds. It is this Israeli persistence that inspires my own goals, and can serve as an inspiration to all young people my age.

While waiting on line to greet Michael Oren, my father bumped into the Greek Ambassador, who he had just met in Los Angeles a week earlier. My father congratulated him on Panathinaikos’ victory, but looked at him and said: “We’ll beat you next year.” Persistence.

More indictments in soccer stadium plot

Two eastern Jerusalem residents employed by the British Consulate have been charged in connection with a plan to attack a Jerusalem soccer stadium.

Israel indicted the men, both Palestinians, on Sunday for arms trafficking for Hamas. A gag order was lifted on the case Sunday.

The charges have no connection with their jobs as maintenance workers at the consulate, which is located in the eastern Jerusalem community of Sheikh Jarrah, British media reported, citing Israeli officials.

Two other Israeli citizens, also Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem, were indicted Sunday in the same plan to attack Teddy Stadium. According to the indictment, the men were connected to Hamas and had visited a nearby hillside to determine whether it would be an appropriate place to launch a missile at the stadium when it was full of spectators for a Beitar Jerusalem soccer game. They also had acquired rifles in eastern Jerusalem to carry out other attacks.

A fifth man also was indicted in the plan.

The consulate employees were charged with helping the others obtain weapons.

Shalom, sports fans — it’s time for some respect!

After decades of dealing with war and terrorism, Israel appears to be waking up to a new security threat: sports hooliganism.

Back-to-back incidents of extreme unruliness by soccer and basketball fans have stirred debate here over whether violence somehow has become innate to the Jewish state.

It began on Nov. 3, when hundreds of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team refused to observe a minute of silence during an away game to mark the 12th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Instead, many of them whistled and sang songs in praise of the prime minister’s jailed killer, Yigal Amir.

That prompted a rare public rebuke from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a lifelong Beitar Jerusalem supporter.

“This behavior — by a large, loud, influential and raging group, and not by a small group as those who would play it down might put it — was wicked and unconscionable,” Olmert said during a speech that was broadcast live.

Then, on Sunday, Israeli sportsmanship hit a new nadir. In the final minute of a basketball game between Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Jerusalem, a firecracker was thrown on the court. In a bid to spare the players injury, a security guard scooped up the device and tried to throw it aside, but it exploded too soon. The guard lost three fingers.

Pictures of the horrible injury and the stunned courtside crowd were splashed on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers.

“At this rate, someone is going to get killed,” said Mickey Dorsman, the owner of Hapoel Holon.

Dorsman, in an interview with Israel Radio, said Israeli society is descending to an alarming level of casual violence.

The authorities are not doing enough to address the problem, Dorsman charged, saying the police should do more to stop fans smuggling dangerous objects into sporting events.

“There should be the same precautions as are taken at airports, and if that means body searches that take hours, then so be it,” he said.

Though police maintain a presence at major sporting events, their main concern long has been preventing terrorist attacks against fans. Crowd control is secondary for a police force many say is stretched too thin and underfunded.

“This matter is a police responsibility, but not exclusively,” said Avi Dichter, Israel’s internal security minister.

Four Hapoel Holon fans were arrested in the firecracker incident. According to media reports, one confessed to throwing the device, apparently in an attempt to disrupt the game and prevent his team from losing.

Ghaleb Majadle, Israel’s sports minister, called for the culprit to be prosecuted with extraordinary severity.

“This has to bring about a state of emergency, with all that entails,” Majadle said on Army Radio. “We need to tackle it without mercy and immediately.”

Some pundits suggest punishing rowdy fans by denying their team ticket income.

“The explosion at the game in Jerusalem is not just a sporting disaster. It is also an opportunity,” veteran political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in a column in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot. “So this is my proposal: The team whose fan it was that blew up the game last night should be excluded from all further scheduled matches.”

League organizers already have taken a stern line by setting a new precedent. Following the anti-Rabin catcalls, Israel’s Soccer Federation ruled that Beitar’s supporters be barred from its next two Premier League games.

Briefs: Sukkah at UC Davis vandalized; Poll: Israelis want united Jerusalem

Sukkah at UC Davis Vandalized

Anti-Israel statements, including “End Israeli Occupation” and “Free Palestine,” were spray-painted on the inside of the sukkah at the Chabad House at UC Davis. Rabbi Shmary Brownstein, co-director of the Chabad House, said in an interview with the California Aggie newspaper on Sunday that a Hillel official notified him of the damage on Oct. 5, the last day of Sukkot. Brownstein said it was the first time in more than four years on campus that he’s had to deal with sukkah vandals.

“This is a sukkah,” he said. “The existence of it is a religious requirement and not a political statement in any way.”

Mike Amerikaner, Hillel’s program director, told the Aggie that anti-Semitism has become a growing problem at Davis, a northern California school with an estimated student population of 30,000, 10 percent of which is Jewish.

“This is not something that’s new,” Amerikaner said. “We’ve been dealing with anti-Semitism on campus for awhile now.”

Another California sukkah, outside of San Jose State University’s Hillel of Silicon Valley, was found torched last week.

Report: Winograd Will Spare Olmert

Israel’s commission of inquiry into the Lebanon war will not recommend that Ehud Olmert resign. Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that the Winograd Commission’s conclusions will be published in December and “will not draw personal conclusions” — parlance for a call on high-level officials to step down. The commission’s interim report, published in April, savaged Olmert’s handling of the July-August 2006 campaign against Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists. But it stopped short of demanding the prime minister quit. With Olmert’s wartime defense minister, Amir Peretz, and military chief, Dan Halutz, having already resigned, many political analysts have speculated that the Winograd Commission is saving its harshest criticism of the prime minister for its final report. A commission spokesman had no comment on the Yediot report.

WJC Officials Meet Pope Benedict

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and new Secretary-General Michael Schneider focused on interreligious dialogue and anti-Semitism in their talks with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. During a private lunch, Lauder thanked the pope for his efforts on behalf of the Jewish people over the past decades. Benedict emphasized that the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations was close to his heart. Lauder and Schneider were scheduled to meet later Monday with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. They were expected to call on Italy to take a firm stance against the intentions of Iran to develop nuclear capabilities. On Sunday evening, Lauder and Schneider hosted a dinner attended by cardinals, ambassadors to the Vatican and officials engaged in interreligious dialogue.

Poll: Israelis Want United Jerusalem

Most Israelis would oppose partitioning Jerusalem under a peace deal with the Palestinians, a poll found. According to Tuesday’s survey in Yediot Achronot, 61 percent of Israelis would not agree to any compromise on the status of the capital within the framework of a peace accord. Twenty-one percent said they would accept a partition, while the rest — 16 percent — said ceding control of east Jerusalem should first be put to a referendum in Israel. Sixty-one percent of respondents said Israel should retain control of the Temple Mount, even if Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem are transferred to Palestinian control. Sixteen percent said there should be shared Israeli-Palestinian control over the Temple Mount, while 22 percent called for the disputed religious site to fall under international sovereignty. One percent had no response. The future of Jerusalem has become a burning issue in Israel since Vice Premier Haim Ramon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s top deputy, proposed that the city be partitioned along ethnic and religious lines should a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority be secured. The newspaper did not say how many people were polled, nor did it give a margin of error.

Soccer Player Snubs Israel

An Iranian-born German soccer player refused to take part in a game in Israel. The German soccer federation announced Monday that Ashkan Dejagah, a member of the national under-21 team, had withdrawn from a European Championship qualifier against Israel. That game is to be held Friday in Tel Aviv. Dejagah, who was born in Tehran but is also a German national, said in media interviews that his decision was “political.” He indicated that he is mainly concerned about repercussions should he try to travel to Iran after visiting Israel. German pundits and politicians, as well as the local Jewish community, have called for punitive action against Dejagah.

New Push for Arrests in AMIA Bombing

The American Jewish Committee intensified its claim for the arrest of former Iranian officials accused of participating in the deadly attack on an Argentine Jewish center. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal published a letter by David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director, calling for Interpol to arrest six Iranians accused by the Argentine Justice Department of being involved in the 1994 AMIA bombing. The attack on the main Jewish center in Buenos Aires killed 85 and wounded hundreds. Argentina forwarded a demand to Interpol for the arrest of eight Iranians and a Hezbollah leader, and in March Interpol agreed to demand the arrest of six of them. Interpol will discuss the issue next month at its annual general assembly.

Israeli Heads World Medical Association

Dr. Yoram Blachar (WMA), a veteran member of the World Medical Association council, was promoted to president over the weekend, beating candidates from New Zealand and India. The WMA represents millions of physicians hailing from 84 national medical associations worldwide. Blachar, 67, has been especially active in WMA debates on medical ethics but has vowed to boost the association’s work on preventive care, especially in emerging nations. Blachar has served as chairman of the Israel Medical Association since 1995.

Arab Is Israel’s Top Breeder

An Israeli Arab has sired 67 children, a national record. Shehade Abu Arad has been recognized by the Interior Ministry as Israel’s top breeder after he registered 67 children that he had with his eight wives, Yediot Acharonot reported Monday. Abu Arad, 58, lives in the central Israeli village of Burgata. Runner-up in the reproduction ranking is another Israeli Arab who has 39 children from four wives, according to Yediot. Arabs constitute around 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population but their numbers are growing thanks to high birth rates.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

My World Cup Runneth Over

Soccer’s World Cup, played every four years, is being contested in Germany by 32 national teams from all parts of the world. One week of competition has gone by, three weeks to go before the championship game on July 9. The world is riveted.

But not the American sports public, which has reacted with its usual collective yawn.

Why hasn’t soccer fever caught on here? Why is it an obsession/religion in just about every other country, including Israel, but largely ignored in the United States?

Theories have been offered: that soccer moms don’t control the TV remote; that American TV avoids sports that don’t offer alluring time-outs for commercials; that soccer is too slow for an American audience; that not using arms or hands goes against our grain; that Americans just don’t get soccer’s subtle charms.

All that may be true, but I suspect the real answer lies elsewhere.

As Americans, we’ve always been optimistic, on or off the playing field. Your career down the tubes? No worries. Go out and reinvent yourself. You’ve hit bottom? No big deal. Like The Doors told us years ago, just break on through to the other side.

The rest of the world, which has a less optimistic view, believes that when you hit bottom, you just lie there.

It’s our American optimism that’s at the heart of why we don’t take to soccer. Think about it. Soccer is a 90-plus-minute game in which the final score, often enough, is 0-0, or perhaps 1-0. In a typical game, there are about 100 attempts to move the ball into scoring position. Of those, there are about 20 actual shots, half of which don’t go anywhere near the goal. All that flailing and tackling and passing and running, and at the end of game, you’ve got just one lousy goal. If that.

One-hundred plays. One possible score. That’s a failure rate that Americans will not put up with. A soccer match is a cold slap in the face to the American assumption that hard work and cosmic justice will, in the end, achieve positive results.

When the fates don’t reward skill and hard work, we Americans are outraged. We call it unfair. The rest of the world shrugs and says: That’s what a sports event should be — for every 100 attempts, you get one success. Maybe. If you’re lucky.

And that’s how most of the world, including Israel, sees life. When I lived in Israel, the phrase one heard — whenever there was a disaster — was yihyeh tov, it’ll be OK. No matter how terrible things were at the time, no matter what had taken place, someone was sure to say, yihyeh tov. Things will be all right.

But the tone with which this was said, and the resigned shrug, the what-can-you-do hand gesture, made it clear that Israelis didn’t really believe that things were going to be all right. It was said like a magical incantation, and the implicit message was that things would inevitably get worse.

Israelis, like the rest of the world, don’t have Americans’ blind optimism, the Pollyanna faith that good works will be rewarded. Israelis love soccer because they’re realistic enough to know that 0-0 is all we can expect from life. Broken plays are the norm, and any scoring probably happens when the fates are taking a nap.

We Americans aren’t like that. We love scoring. Lots of it. It confirms our belief that if you perform well, the outcome will be successful. Look at our sports. Basketball has a 50 percent scoring success rate, while baseball and football also have a great deal of scoring, or at least successful plays, like base hits and completed passes. This may be the reason that ice hockey — with its relatively low scoring and high frustration factor — has remained in the second tier of American sports, even when the matches are juiced up with fistfights.

Yes, it’s our optimism — our unshakable, Hollywood-reinforced belief that wherever there’s a problem there must be a solution — that keeps us from embracing soccer, a sport that is heartbreaking in its insistence that life is a series of broken plays. Soccer is a paean to the futility of expectations. It’s a sport whose fans are resigned to the dark but realistic assumption that passion and effort and teamwork almost never yield any tangible results.

In short, soccer is quintessentially un-American.

More than anyone, Albert Camus — in such works as the “Myth of Sisyphus” — expresses the view that life is absurd, a series of broken plays, and does not necessarily reward those who deserve it. He says that the struggle itself is heroic, irrespective of results. Camus, who played soccer and loved the sport, is supposed to have said that many of his understandings about life were drawn from lessons he learned on the soccer pitch.

No doubt, soccer would have been Sisyphus’s sport of choice.

Roberto Loiederman is a screenwriter and co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny” (Naval Institute Press, 2001).


Travel Briefs

Music Festival Celebrates Jewish New Orleans

Hot on the heels of Mardi Gras, a recovering Big Easy will soon play host to the inaugural New Orleans International Jewish Music Festival. The two-day gathering on April 1-2 will celebrate the rebuilding of Jewish New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Featured artists include The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Blue Fringe, Neshama Carlebach, Moshav Band, Sam Glaser, RebbeSoul, Theresa Andersson, Yom Hadash and Voices of Israel. U.S. artists will kick off the April 1 concert at The Howlin’ Wolf with a Havdallah service, while the April 2 show at Tulane University will feature a mix of U.S. and international acts. Sponsors include the Hiddur Mitzvah Project, Moment Magazine and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

For more information, visit or call (504) 780-5612.

Kosher Signs for Israeli McDonald’s

Two branches of McDonald’s in Israel are getting new signs so prospective customers know those outlets are kosher. Under an initiative championed by the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Meir Lau, the two branches of the fast-food chain in the city that have rabbinical certification are getting new Hebrew-language signs with “kosher” clearly marked in the national colors of blue and white.

“I feared that tourists or youths from outside Tel Aviv would come for a visit, eat at a kosher branch and assume that all of the McDonald’s branches in Israel are kosher,” Lau was quoted saying in Yediot Achronot last week.

The remainder of the some 100 branches in Israel retain the distinctive white, yellow and red signs in English.

Arab Airline Slams Israel Deal With Soccer Team

An Arab country’s national airline criticized the decision of a British soccer team it sponsors to promote Israeli tourism. Emirates Airlines, which pays $5.2 million for the naming rights to Arsenal’s new stadium, and whose logo appears on team jerseys, censured the $600,000 deal, which will go into effect for the 2006-2007 season, with an option to renew for another year. Israel will be promoted on LCD billboards in Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, on banner ads on the team’s Web site and in its official magazine, where the Jewish state will be billed as Arsenal’s “official and exclusive travel destination.”

The club said it cleared the deal with UAE officials, but a spokesman for the national carrier denied this, calling the deal “unfortunate,” and adding that the company will “do our best to persuade Arsenal not to renew its deal with Israel.”

Israeli Tourism Ministry officials said the ads will “broaden Israel’s appeal to sun and fun-seekers,” and hope they will bring an added 2 million tourists to the country.

Mubarak Woos Israeli Tourists

Egypt’s president reportedly called on Israeli tourists avoiding his country to reconsider their plans. Yediot Achronot quoted a letter sent recently by Hosni Mubarak to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in which he pledged that security at Sinai resorts was satisfactory.

“The Israelis have nothing to worry about,” Mubarak wrote. “We want to promote tourism and are doing everything to protect tourists.”

Israelis, who long flocked to Sinai, largely have avoided it since a series of Islamist suicide bombings killed dozens of vacationers there in 2004. In the past few years, Israel repeatedly has issued advisories against its citizens visiting neighboring Arab countries. Some Israelis believe they’re not truly welcome in Egypt, despite the 27-year-old peace accord between the countries.

Yediot quoted Mubarak as adding in his letter, “We will never return to the path of war. This is our strategic decision, and we will keep with it.”

The Foreign Ministry did not immediately confirm the report.

Dublin Opens a Jewish House

The Dublin Jewish community opened a house with kosher facilities for students and young professionals. Located in a former Jewish retirement home near the core of Dublin’s Jewish population on the city’s south side, the house is open to any Jews living in, working in or visiting Dublin. In addition to providing living space for observant Jews in a city with limited kosher facilities, the house is intended as a place for social contact between the Irish Jewish community and the growing number of Jews who have moved to Ireland for work or study, according to Rabbi Zalman Lent, Dublin’s Chabad rabbi, who spearheaded the project with his wife, Rifky. The house’s eight residents celebrated their first Shabbat there on Feb. 24.

Passport for Jet-Setting Pets

Looking for the purrrfect way to keep your pet’s trip to Israel from being a ruff one? El Al has introduced the “Pet Passport,” a single document for pet owners that contains medical and vaccination information, dietary and grooming instructions, space for a photo and personality details, and even a travel diary for your dog or cat. The passport, created by Pocket Reference Journals, follows the 2001 launch of El Al’s Points for Pets, a frequent-flyer program so your furry friend can earns points toward future travel on the Israeli airline.

To receive a complimentary copy of the passport, call (212) 852-0628.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Journal staff and Jewish Telegraphic Agency.