When relations between Israel and Palestine continue to be fraught with a lack of trust, first steps should be celebrated. This week, Tokyo Sexwale chaired the first meeting of FIFA's Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine with representatives of both football associations pictured shaking hands. More talks have already been planned for September in the Middle East.
The Committee was launched after the FIFA Congress in May when Palestine withdraws its resolution to see Israel banned from football activities. “Our call to suspend the Israeli Football Association from FIFA comes after nearly three years of a failed mechanism to secure meaningful and substantial commitments from the Israeli side, where oppression and discrimination against Palestinian sports in general, and football in particular, have remained unchanged,” the Palestinians argued.
Jibril al-Rajoub, the head of the Palestine FA, will join with Israel's Roman Kamer for talks, the South Africa chairman overseeing the meetings. Sexwale can bring a lot to the table in terms of reconciliation based on his work with communities in South Africa. He was a close ally of Nelson Mandela in the battle against Apartheid in the 1980s and 90s – he has carried on that relationship to be a trustee of Mandela's own foundation.
The 62-year-old has held governmental roles in South Africa until recent years and was part of the organizing committee for the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa. “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,” he told FIFA's official website.
But finding tangible solutions require both sides to give up particularly opinions. Susan Shalabi and is an Executive Committee member at the Asian Football Confederation. She is well-versed in the broader struggles of the Palestinian people and similarly the restrictions being placed on Palestine in the sporting arena.
In an email interview with Al Arabiya News, Shalabi highlighted six key problems that Palestinian sportsmen and women have faced as a result of human rights violations, restricting movement of foreign players and officials, the organization of football activities, banning the construction of infrastructure, preventing resources being sent from FIFA or AFC, and political intervention in organization of matches.
Barriers still hurt Palestinian sport
Although Palestine's standoff with Israel goes much deeper than football or sport, competition provides a strong metaphor. The chance to move out of poverty, avoid mixing with the wrong people and even developing skills like leadership and teamwork that are beneficial in other fields.
Shalabi writes: “Sport is a chance for exposure; to show the rest of the world what we truly are: We are simply people, just like everyone else. The horrors we live everyday, the feelings of encasement, humiliation, and insecurity did not turn us into misanthropic monsters as often happens with human beings whose entire existence is on the line.”
In 2015, the territory qualified for its first major football finals, the AFC Asian Cup. The euphoria on the streets of Ramallah was palpable – even for the millions watching the tournament around the globe. The international exposure only magnifies Palestine's struggle, and its attempts to define its global image.
Yet Israel's besiegement of the Palestine territory has seen footballers arrested for travelling to international tournaments, some of whom have been held for substantial periods of time. FIFA's investment through the Development Program is welcome, yet it doesn't prevent the Israeli authorities from restricting the movement of trade and labor.
And Shalabi, also experienced in the women's football scene, poses an interesting question. “Surely it would be in everyone's interest if young people in Palestine are given the chance to compete with sport gear, not weapons?”
Can she envisage a solution? “This can only happen if the Israelis recognize our right as a full member of FIFA, entitled to the same rights every other member association enjoys by default,” she adds. “Simple, isn't it? Not for the Israelis and the dilemma they have where words are easier said than done.
As President Sepp Blatter – influential, to his credit, in bringing both parties to the table - prepares to step down with FIFA swamped in a corruption crisis of its own, the organization approaches a crucial juncture. The outcome of the presidential elections will go a long way to determining the future of the world's governing body.
But it remains to be seen if Europe can put forward a candidate with the experience of such important issues outside of the continent's well-financed bubble.
If Shalabi had a magic wand, she says she wouldn't be too ambitious. “Will a strong, transparent FIFA, with Confederations in balance working in tandem under her FIFA's umbrella be asking for too much, I wonder?”