LONDON (AP) — Dozens of leading footballers have signed a statement protesting UEFA’s decision to stage the European under-21 championship in Israel next year following the country’s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Sixty-two players, including Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Arsenal’s Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain’s Jeremy Menez, claim that Israel hosting the tournament will be “seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.”
The protest statement was promoted Friday by several pro-Palestinian groups, based in Israel, France and Britain. Headed “European footballers declare support for Palestine”, it was not signed by any players due in Israel in June.
Israel launched an offensive in Gaza earlier this month in response to intensifying rocket fire from Gaza-based Palestinian militants, killing dozens of civilians in what the footballers said amounted to “yet another stain on the world’s conscience.”
“We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom,” the players said in the statement, which was also published on the website of former Tottenham and Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute.
Four Israeli civilians were killed by rockets fired from Gaza into residential neighborhoods during the eight-day conflict that ended on Nov. 21.
The draw for the biennial UEFA tournament was conducted on Wednesday in Tel Aviv, the coastal city that was bombarded by rocket fire from Gaza.
But UEFA President Michel Platini has said he has no security concerns about the eight-team tournament, which will be played from June 5-18 in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya and Petach Tikva.
Kanoute, who now plays for the Chinese club Beijing Guoan, was among the high-profile footballers who tried earlier this year to get UEFA to strip Israel of the hosting rights.
But Platini wrote to the Israel Football Association in June to say that the country “earned the right to host this competition through a fair, democratic vote.”
UEFA declined on Friday to comment on the latest protest statement.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.