Palestinians cancel Infantino visit as he turns Israeli trip into political PR coup

By Paul Nicholson and Andrew Warshaw

October 12 – The tense relationship between Palestinian football and FIFA chief Gianni Infantino reached fever pitch on Monday when a meeting between the two was cancelled by the Palestinian FA who in a statement today said they could not support a PR visit designed around the “support of evangelical Zionist groups that advocate the negation of Palestinian rights.”

The Palestinians, who had been contacted by FIFA to arrange a visit for Infantino last Thursday, were arranging a series of meetings and events that would have included laying the foundation stone for the PFA Technical centre, and kick starting the final match of the Women’s seven-a-side league.

They say they understood that Infantino was visiting football leaders in both countries and that it was a set of meetings that would discuss the issues that have hindered the development of football in Palestine, and find possible solutions to pending problems, not least the free movement of football players and equipment across borders.

The visit was to take place after Infantino had attended two events in Israel – his first trip to the country. However, the Palestinians became uncomfortable when they found out the events were at the Friedman Centre for Peace through Strength at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, set up by the former Trump administration’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman who the Palestinians accuse of being extremist and pro-annexation of Palestinian territories.

In a statement the Palestinian FA (PFA) said: “The Palestine football association regrets the decision of FIFA President, Mr. Gianni Infantino, to take part in two events that take place today at the so-called ‘Museum of Tolerance’, an edifice built over the Ma’manullah Islamic cemetery – the oldest Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem dating back to the 11th century – which we view as a total affrontment to the values of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, both endorsed by the FIFA statutes.”

The PFA had already written to Infantino warning that his participation will be seen by many FIFA members as a politicisation of football and that “the FIFA President’s participation will be seen as a desecration of the Holy Site and will not contribute to bringing people together, but rather pull them apart.”

In their statement today (Tuesday) the Palestinians say the ‘Museum of Tolerance’ “has been illegally built on the confiscated grounds of the historic Ma’manullah Islamic cemetery, a place declared a historic site by the Muslim supreme Council in 1927, and an “antiquities site” by the British Mandate of Palestine in 1944. It contains the remains of thousands of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims whose tombs were desecrated by the building of the location of the conference.”

Local reports said that Infantino met with Israeli Football Association (IFA) Chairman Ori Sasson.

“I’m happy to be in Israel,” Infantino was quoted as saying. “Oren Sasson and his team presented me with the vision and strategy to advance Israeli football to the next level. The hard work has already started. It is an encouraging time for Israeli football.”

It appears Infantino made a deliberate point of including the Palestinians in his speech about future collaboration in the region. He was quoted as saying that the signing of the Abraham Accords, the US-brokered normalization deals Israel signed last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, could eventually lead to Israel co-hosting the soccer World Cup – along with its Arab neighbours.

“Israel is a crazy football country, I talked about it with the chairman of the Israeli Football association, Oren Hasson, today, who told me that Jews and Arabs play football together in this country,” he told his audience.

“When it comes to peace, Palestine should also be a part of it. If there is a connection with Palestine through football, maybe it will help all of us, and later also the politicians, to make this region and this world better.

“We do the World Cup in countries like Qatar to connect the world together and get to know other cultures, and we would like that to happen in Israel as well, why not? My dream is to make a regional event between you and your neighbours. In football, you have to work for your future. ”

“Why not dream of a World Cup in Israel and its neighbours? Following the Abraham accords, why not do it here as well in conjunction with the neighbours in the Middle East and the Palestinians.”

Infantino’s honeyed words amid the glitzy and privileged Israeli and American group he spoke to in Jerusalem will only be viewed with contempt and, at best, interpreted as Infantino’s extreme naivety by the Palestinians and the bulk of the Arab and muslim football world.

The event was attended by a raft of former Trump administration officials, including his daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared Kushner and former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Significantly  Benjamin Netanyahu, who was Israeli prime minister during the signing of the Abraham Accords, also turned up.

This was not the first time Netanyahu has spoken to Infantino. In 2017, the day before the FIFA Congress in Bahrain, the Israeli called Infantino in a successful bid to get a Palestinian motion removed from the conference agenda that requested FIFA prohibit six teams in the West Bank settlement areas from playing in the Israeli leagues. The accusation was that the Israelis were using football to redraw national boundaries by playing on the land of another national association.

Infantino further backed the Israelis at the Congress, even to the degree of having the microphone removed from the Palestinian delegation and preventing the issues being debated.

The latest global political big footing by Infantino will have done nothing to build trust and enraged the Palestinian Authority which has denounced the Abraham Accords.

Its Foreign Ministry described Friedman as being “notorious for his extremist positions and support for annexation, colonization and other crimes under international law in addition to his notorious efforts at denying the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.”

The PA further argued: “One of the basic requirements for peace is respect of religious sites, maintaining their status quo, and their status, and in the particular case of the Mamilla cemetery, to allow for its restoration rather than to continue the process of desecration,” it said in a statement.”

The PFA ended their statement saying: “While we express our disappointment at the FIFA President’s decision to still participate in the abovementioned events, we remain committed to contribute to FIFA’s efforts to use football as a tool for the promotion of peace, coexistence, and tolerance based on the principles enshrined in the FIFA statutes.”

That of course assumes Infantino cares or takes any notice of the statutes. When it comes to Palestine his form to date has been to follow the money and global influence. They aren’t enshrined in FIFA’s statutes. Religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence, as the Palestinians point out, are.

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