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Is Italy flirting with Israeli Apartheid?

Ramzy Baroud

Published: Updated:

On May 4, a legendary Italian biking race, Giro d’Italia, began in Jerusalem, despite numerous calls made to the race organizers not to validate Israel’s illegal military occupation of the city.

Israeli leaders interpreted the event as a “celebration” of Israel’s independence, while Palestinian groups viewed it as a violation of international consensus on the status of Jerusalem.

However, there is more to the story than meets the eye. It is part of a worrying trend in Italian politics and an increasing affinity to the rightwing government of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Italy breaking ranks

Although the US Administration of Donald Trump is the only country in the world that has carried out the unlawful decision of recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of the Palestinian city, others could follow suit if enough pressure is not exerted by civil societies on their governments to respect international law.

For now, Italy remains committed to the legal status of Jerusalem, abiding by the consensus of the European Union. But once a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, the Italian government has been shifting course in recent years.

Italy was the first European state to break ranks and reject a resolution by the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, last year which renounced Israel’s sovereignty in Occupied East Jerusalem. This was followed by more disturbing statements by Italian politicians that indicated a sizable shift in Italy’s foreign policy outlook on Palestine and Israel.

The trend continued. Last April, representatives of Italy’s Jewish communities pulled out of rallies marking the 73th anniversary of the country’s liberation from the Nazis simply because various groups attending the rallies raised Palestinian flags.

Instead, separate rallies were staged by pro-Israel Jewish organizations that were offended by “the presence of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian groups,” according to the Times of Israel.

Outrageously, Italy’s leadership accommodated such intransigence as the country’s prime minister and the mayor of Rome reportedly attended the private celebrations.

The irony is that Israeli practices against Palestinians is reminiscent of the reality that Bartali and millions of Italians fought against for years

Ramzy Baroud

Sport-washing

More recently, for the first time since its inception in 1909, Giro d’Italia kicked off outside Europe and strangely enough, from the city of Jerusalem.

Every attempt aimed at dissuading the race organizers from being part of Israel’s political propaganda failed. The millions of dollars paid to the Giro d’Italia organizers, RCS Sport, seemed far more compelling than shared cultural experiences, solidarity, human rights and international law.

Legendary Italian novelist, Dino Buzzati, wrote various accounts in Italian newspapers in the 1940s, describing the symbolism of the race in the context of a battered nation resurrecting from the ashes of untold destruction.

The 1946 Giro D’Italia, especially the legendary competition between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, became a metaphor for a country rising from the horrors of war and reanimating its national identity, as symbolized in the final struggle between heroic athletes pedaling through the torturous mountainous roads to reach the finish line.

Understanding this history, Israel exploited it in every possible way. In fact, the Israeli government recently awarded the late Gino Bartali an honorary Israeli citizenship. The decision was made as an acknowledgment of the Italian athlete’s anti-Nazi legacy.

The irony, of course, is that the Israeli practices against Palestinians – military Occupation, racism, Apartheid and abhorrent violence – is reminiscent of the very reality that Bartali and millions of Italians fought against for years.

When Israeli officials announced last September that Giro D’Italia would start in Jerusalem, they labored to link the decision to Israel’s celebration of 70 years of independence.

70 years ago, Palestinians were dispossessed from their homeland by Zionist militias, leading to the Nakba, the catastrophic destruction of Palestine and the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state.

It was then that West Jerusalem became part of Israel, and the rest of the Holy City, East Jerusalem, was also conquered in 1967 before it was officially, but illegally, annexed in 1981 in defiance of international law.

RCS Sport cannot claim ignorance regarding how their decision to engage and validate Israeli Apartheid will forever scar the history of the race. When their website announced that the race would kick off from “West Jerusalem”, the Israeli response was swift and furious.

Israeli Sports Minister, Miri Regev and Tourism Minister, Yariv Levi, threatened to end their partnership with the race, claiming that “in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, there is no East or West. There is one unified Jerusalem.” Alas, Giro d’Italia organizers publicly apologized before removing the word ‘West’ from their website and press releases.

Celebrating Apartheid

According to international law, East Jerusalem is an occupied Palestinian city. This fact has been stated time and again through United Nations resolutions, including the most recent Resolution 2334, adopted on December 23, 2016. It condemns Israel’s illegal settlement constructions in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem.

This reality stands as a stark contradiction to the claims made by Giro d’Italia organizers that their race is a celebration of peace. In truth, it is an endorsement of Apartheid, violence and war crimes.

The fact that the race was held according to plan, despite the ongoing killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza, also underlines the degree of moral corruption by those behind the effort. Over 110 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the peaceful protests at the Gaza border, known as the “Great March of Return”, on March 30. Over 10,000 were wounded, among them 30 athletes, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Youth and Sports.

One of those wounded is Alaa al-Dali, a 21-years-old cyclist whose leg was amputated after being shot on the first day of protests. “Canadian-Jewish philanthropist”, Sylvan Adams, one of the biggest funders of the race, claimed that his contribution is motivated by his desire to promote Israel and to support cycling as a “bridge between nations.”

Palestinians, like Alaa whose cycling career is over, are of course excluded from that lofty, and selective definition. Was the 12 million dollars received by the organizers from Israel and its supporters a worthy enough price to ignore the suffering of Palestinians and to help normalize Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people?

Sadly, for the RSC Sport, the answer is “yes”. Many Italians and more around the world, of course, disagree. Despite Italian media’s partaking in Israel’s ‘sport-washing’, hundreds of Italians protested at various stages of the race. The fourth stage of Giro d’Italia which was held in Catania, Sicily, was delayed by a protest, against a race which is “stained with the blood of Palestinians”, in the words of activist, Simone Di Stefano.

Renzo Ulivieri, the head of the Italian Football Managers Association, was one of prominent Italian voices that objected to the decision to hold the race in Israel. “I could have remained indifferent, but I fear I would have been despised by the people I respect. Viva the Palestinian people, free in their land,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

The RCS Sport has done the ‘Giro’ race, sport cycling and the Italian people an unforgivable disservice for the sake of what could well be constituted an Israeli bribe of a few million dollars. By agreeing to start the race in a country that is guilty of apartheid practices and a protracted military occupation, they have stained the race forever.

This event cannot be seen as separate from Italy’s worrying political attitude towards Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The inherent contradictions in Italy’s behavior are inescapable.

Italy is a country that has experienced a ruthless occupation and was ravaged by fascism and war. To be party to Israel’s constant attempts at whitewashing or, in the case of Giro d’Italia, “sport-washing’ its military occupation and daily violence against the Palestinian people, is appalling.

However, the general wave of indignation caused by this reckless decision seems to indicate that Israel’s efforts at normalizing its crimes against Palestinians are failing to alter public opinion and the perception of Israel as an occupying power – one that deserves to be boycotted, not embraced.

Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer, contributed to this article.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

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