FIFA President Sepp Blatter urged Israeli authorities Wednesday to collaborate with the Palestine Football Association in order to ease travel restrictions for Palestinian players in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“I call on the Israeli government to facilitate this movement and I go so far as to say its co-operation is crucial,” Blatter said during a FIFA Congress in Brazil’s Sao Paulo ahead of the World Cup tournament.
The Palestine FA has called on the FIFA Congress to suspend Israel from FIFA unless it lifts restrictions on Palestinian players. However, at the Congress itself, Palestine FA chairman Jibril Rajoub implied that he no longer seeks to impose sanctions against Israel, but added that the hardships endured by Palestinian players must come to an end.
“I call on those who are causing the suffering to stop and those that are suffering not to lose hope as they are part of the FIFA family,” Rajoub said.
Israel has cited concerns about possible attacks by Palestinian terrorists as the main reason for sweeping restrictions on movement that affect most Palestinians, including athletes. Israel prevents virtually all travel between the West Bank and Gaza, two territories that lie on opposite sides of Israel and are sought by the Palestinians as part of a future state.
Earlier in the week, Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat wrote to Blatter to say that Israel would allow Palestinian athletes to “exit and enter for the purpose of sports, excluding occasions in which there are attempts to make use of sports in order to injure or threaten the security of our citizens.”
On Wednesday, the Shin Bet security service revealed it was holding a member of the Palestinian Authority’s national soccer team on suspicion of meeting with a Hamas operative in Qatar in April and receiving a phone, funds, and written instructions that were to be passed on to Hamas contacts in the West Bank city of Qalqilya.
Samah Maraabeh, 22, was arrested on April 28, the Shin Bet said.
Several other Palestinian players have also been sentenced and detained for acts of terror. Most recently, Omar Abu Rwayyis, the squad’s former goalie, was arrested in April 2012 for shooting at an IDF patrol near Ramallah. Mahmoud Sarsak, that same year, was freed from Israeli prison, where he was incarcerated under administrative detention as an active member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, after a 97-day hunger strike.
Livnat stated that Maraabeh’s actions were “worrisome” and constituted “clear evidence of the misuse of sports in a fashion that threatens the security of Israeli civilians.”
She also accused Rajoub of inciting against Israel.
The head coach of the Palestinian national team, Jamal Mahmoud, said he was not aware of a meeting between Maraabeh and Hamas members during the team’s time in Qatar. “If he did talk to a member of Hamas, it was his own individual decision,” Mahmoud said.