Protesters waved Lionel Messi shirts stained with fake blood outside Argentina’s training facility in Spain recently. Fans were urged to burn pictures and jerseys of the Argentinian phenom. These were not soccer hooligans. Nor was it theatrics from Iceland, Nigeria or Croatia, the countries that were soon set to face the South American powerhouse in the World Cup. Instead, this was part of a Palestinian campaign to torpedo the Argentina-Israel friendly that was scheduled for early June.
Some media outlets, including the New York Times and ESPN, erroneously linked the cancellation to the fixture’s Jerusalem location. In truth, the cancellation is just the latest episode of a decades-long effort to isolate Israel in the sporting world.
The Palestine Football Association (PFA) and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are calling this a major victory. And it probably was. Argentina’s coach confirmed that threats against players led the country to cancel the match. Notably, Jibril Rajoub, head of the PFA, singled out Lionel Messi and vowed “to target him personally.” This and other stunts clearly unnerved the Argentinian squad. Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuaín expressed relief that the game was canceled, saying, “Rationale and health come before everything else.”
The PFA tried to paint its opposition to the match as a response to the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Israel had moved the match from Haifa to western Jerusalem, sparking Palestinian opposition, according to Jibril Rajoub. Rajoub, apparently without irony, urged the head of Argentinian soccer not to allow Israel to politicize sports.
Rajoub, in an effort to isolate Israel, has been politicizing the sporting community for years. In 2012, for example, Rajoub opposed a moment of silence for the victims of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, arguing that it would lead to the “spreading of racism.” In 2014, Rajoub expressed his opposition to a coexistence match between Israelis and Palestinians. “Any activity of normalization in sports with the Zionist enemy is a crime against humanity,” he said.
Rajoub has also campaigned to get Israel expelled from FIFA, soccer’s governing body, since at least 2013. That campaign reached its apex in 2015 with the drive to give Israel a “red card.” FIFA’s then-president refused Palestinian demands, and noted that this campaign was a dangerous politicization of sports. As of late 2017, Rajoub was still attempting to eject Israel from FIFA.
Long before he assumed the leadership of the Palestinian soccer association, Rajoub was a political figure with close ties to the ruling Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Fatah faction. Rajoub has endorsed resistance “in all its forms,” a euphemism for terrorism and violence. He also vowed, “If we had nuclear weapons, we’d be using them.” In 2017, Rajoub expressly stated his support for boycotts and sanctions against Israel.
For Israel, Rajoub’s campaign is nothing new. The Jewish state has faced sports boycotts since its founding in 1948. Arab and Muslim countries were initially successful in barring Israel from several international sporting competitions. But the athletic embargo on Israel has waned as the sporting world has stood up to the sports bullying campaign.
The UAE, for example, faced stiff fines and penalties from the Women’s Tennis Association for denying an Israeli tennis player a visa to compete in a 2009 tournament. Similarly, swimming’s international body formally warned the UAE and Qatar for refusing to display Israel’s flag or refer to Israel by its name in a 2013 meet. In February 2018, the United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber banned an Iranian wrestler and coach for six months and two years respectively for intentionally throwing a match to avoid facing an Israeli opponent. Tunisia’s tennis team was banned from the 2014 Davis Cup for ordering its player not to compete against an Israeli. And in April, the International Olympic Committee blocked Tunisia’s bid to host the 2022 Youth Olympics after the country banned Israeli athletes from competing in a taekwondo event.
These punishments should serve as a model for how international sporting bodies must deal with Palestinian attempts to harass Israel. International sporting bodies must be proactive—not reactive—to prevent these demonization campaigns. Otherwise, the messy Palestinian sports boycott crusade against Israel will ensnare more athletic events and governing bodies.