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Demands for Israel sports ban grow louder

Dana Sumlaji
February 16, 2024

With the Olympics and football's European Championship looming, pressure is increasing on sporting bodies to ban Israel. As ever, the intersection of sport and politics is a matter of some disagreement.

Israeli players drape themselves in flags as they shake hands before a match
The right of Israel to compete in sporting competitions is being called in to question Image: Joosep Martinson/Getty Images/DFB/Getty Images

Calls to ban Israel from international sport because of the Israel-Hamas war have grown ever louder in recent weeks, with a new petition gathering significant backing, a letter in the European Parliament and a row between Israeli and Irish basketballers posing serious questions for major sporting events and organizations.

The petition, by 'The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025', calls on Israel to be suspended from sports and has gained over 70,000 signatures, as of February 16. And, with the Paris Olympics starting in July and Israel's male footballers facing playoffs in March to qualify for June's European Championship in Germany, sporting administrators are under pressure to make a decision.

One of the co-organizers of the petition, Katarina Pijetlovic, believes it is time bodies such the International Olympic Committee (IOC), world football's governing body FIFA and their European equivalent UEFA stepped in.

"The purpose of the petition is really to put the pressure on the Israeli government from the sporting side as well," Pijetlovic, whose accompanying letter will be sent to sporting governance bodies, told DW. 

Calls for action

It comes amid a letter, tweeted out by Irish MEP (Member of European Parliament) Chris McManus and signed by several other MEPs, that calls on FIFA, UEFA and "all other competent bodies to take decisive action."

That follows a similar missive from the the 12-member West Asian Football Federation (WAFF), led by Jordanian prince and football association boss Prince Ali bin Al Hussein. UEFA president, Alexsander Ceferin has also admitted that his organization "do not have a final position yet” but are "receiving more and more questions.” In addition, 300 Palestinian sport clubs called on the IOC to exclude Israel from the Olympics.

More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza according to the health ministry in Gaza, with Israel facing accusations of genocide.

Israel says it has a right to defend itself after over 1,200 people were killed by Palestinian Islamists Hamas and other groups inside Israel on October 7. Israel has carried out a wide-ranging military operation ever since in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas - recognized as a terrorist organization by the German government, the EU and the USA. 

Pijetlovic compares the actions of Israel to those of Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine in 2022 saw them widely suspended from international sports. 

"So on the day four, if we compare figures alone, there was 14 children as victims of war in Ukraine, and that is 14 children too many. But now we have around 14,000 Palestinian children who have been killed in this invasion or aggression on Gaza, And there is no action, there is no condemnation from FIFA, from UEFA, from IOC or anybody.

"I think that the international response to that (Russian) aggression was very, very different than what we is seeing now."

Double standards?

Israel's footballers are currently playing in neutral venues due to security concerns. But FIFA and other major organizations are sticking to the idea that sports and politics are separate.

Israeli Football Association chief executive Niv Goldstein told Sky News: "I am trusting FIFA not to involve politics in football. We are against involving politicians in football and being involved in political matters in the sport in general."

For those representing the country, striking a balance is tough. “It’s very difficult to disconnect from this situation (the war)," said footballer Eran Zahavi. "We’re here to represent Israel in the best way we can. The easy solution would be not to play, but we hope to make all of our country really happy.”

But Pijetlovic reckons sporting bodies are showing double standards. Officially security was the legal reason given for suspending Russia from sports following the invasion of Ukraine but it has widely been accepted as a sanction.

"Those people that say we should leave politics out of sports are saying it now. They weren't saying it then (when Russia invaded Ukraine). What they are claiming is that security was one of the main concerns for them, even though public sentiment was not as high back then," she said.

"To keep the events safe, in particular because UEFA claimed that even if played on neutral territory, which is what they're now allowing Israel to do, there is no way that they can provide security. So it is out of the question that Russia can play even on neutral territory. But right now they're allowing that to Israel."

The fact Israeli settlers have been building on Palestinian land and playing sport there in contravention of international law is another factor to the argument for an Israeli sporting ban or boycotts, according to sports law expert Pijetlovic.

These are far from the first calls for Israel to be banned from sporting events, with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) group calling for Olympic bans in 2012 and 2016 among a number of largely unsuccessful pleas. More recently, six Irish basketballers refused to play Israel in a women's tournament earlier this month while the rest of Ireland's team refused to shake hands with Israel's players at the EuroBasket 2025 qualifier in Riga.

Basketball row highlights issues

Before the game, the Israeli Basketball Association published an interview with player Dor Saar in which she made allegations about antisemitism in the Ireland team. Basketball Ireland reacted with a statement, calling the comments "inflammatory and wholly inaccurate." It said it could not boycott the game as a federation for fear of sanctions.

The Irish basketball team stand in line before a match
The Irish basketball team refused to shake hands with their Israeli opponents in a recent matchImage: Ben Brady/Inpho/IMAGO

Former Ireland player and pro-Palestinian activist Rebecca O'Keeffe told DW that the players who played in the recent match against Israel were left in an unenviable position. She believes sporting bodies, including basketball's FIBA, should impose a ban and said that if nothing changes between now and the return fixture, in Dublin in November, she will be "reiterating my calls to boycott" the match.

"FIBA has acted before. They swiftly removed Belarus and Russia. So there's precedent here. Israel seems to act with impunity all the time and this is another example of that. We are asking FIBA and our governing bodies, our national bodies, to act to uphold their own rules, their own standards, their own obligations at this point."

O'Keeffe, who was one of 350 athletes to sign an open letter from the 'Irish Sports for Palestine' organization calling for an Israeli sporting ban, believes any sporting suspension should have been levied as soon as civilians in Gaza were killed.

"I called for this boycott in October. I called on FIBA to suspend Israel from international competition based on precedent. There's a lack of decisive action."

Edited by: Matt Pearson

DW Korrespondentin - Dana Sumlaji
Dana Sumlaji x