Friday, August 24, 2007

Footballers banned from Britain: MPs demand answers from Miliband

Comic MARK STEEL wonders what's behind funny business at the FCO. and can make an intelligent guess.

PALESTINIAN under 19 footballers who were due to visit Britain for a three-week training tour with matches against Chester, Tranmere and Blackburn Rovers youth side have been prevented from coming to this country. Why? We're waiting to know.

We could make some guesses, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might not like them. They would cast doubt on Britain's ability - currently in the shape of "peace envoy" Tony Blair - to play honest broker for peace in the Middle East.

The excuse has been offered that because things are so bad in Gaza, some of the Palestinians might not want to go back. It's an insult to their patriotism, albeit a belated acknowledgment of the dire situation to which Britain has contributed. But what next? If sports players are kept out this way how about Palestinian musicians or dancers? Not that Labour believes in cultural boycott. you understand. And why stop at the Palestinians? Could the Pakistan test side be excluded next?

Or does it depend on the instructions given British consulates? And what instructions have been given to our new Foreign Secretary David Miliband?
I wonder what his Dad would have said? MPs alerted by ourselves and others are demanding answers from Miliband. Popular Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn has written as follows:

23 August 2007
Rt Hon David Milliband MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
King Charles St

Dear David
I write to inquire about the recent refusal to allow the Palestinian youngsters into the UK for a football training camp in Chester.
Information which has reached my office from individuals closely involved in the above application (who are, not surprisingly, outraged), leaves me wondering what could possibly be the rationale for such a harsh stance. I would therefore be pleased if you could outline the reasons for this refusal.

As a result of the ongoing sanctions by the UK and others, against the democratically elected government of Palestine, the Palestinians are suffering horrendously, particularly in Gaza where many of these youngsters live. As well as this, what shreds of faith they still have in the so-called peace process are further diluted by small but significant actions such as this visa refusal.

I think it is fair to say that much of the public are aware of two very relevant factors here: the first is that Israel is soon to play England at Wembley, and the second is that the government has focussed much in the past on a so called “even handed approach” when it comes to Israeli/Palestinian issues. In view of these two factors alone, many will not be able to comprehend this decision.
I would be pleased to hear that you have decided to review this application as a matter of urgency and I look forward to hearing from you
Yours sincerely
Jeremy Corbyn MP Islington North

My friend Brian in Milton Keynes has forwarded me a note from MP Phyllis Starkey to say that she shares his astonishment at the visa refusal and has written to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to complain.
I'm waiting to hear from some other MPs. One question that organisers of the tour might ask is what Chester MP Christine Russel has to say. This Labourite lists the Middle East as one of her special interests, and I'm told she l has been to Palestine once if not twice and been supportive. But judging from her voting record she has also been loyally supportive of the government (for instance on Trident and on the war in Iraq) and now she is Beverley Hughes' PPS, at the Department for Children. Still, perhaps she will remember the young people of Palestine and those who want to help them in her constituency?

Besides MPs, other voices have been raised. Comedian and columnist Mark Steel had this to say in the Independent:

Mark Steel: Oi! Referee! That footballer's Palestinian!
What are we doing banning a touring team from Gaza because it is 'too poor'?
Published: 22 August 2007

We're used to stories about footballers' excessive wages, in which a star insists he won't sign a new contract unless he's given a planet. And then when the club backs down, he complains he's only been given Venus, which isn't fair as Didier Drogba got the much bigger Saturn.

But this week the trend reached a new depth. Because the Palestinian youth team, mostly from Gaza, was due to begin a three-week tour, playing against teams such as Blackburn Rovers, Tranmere and Chester. But on the day they were due to arrive, the British Foreign Office announced none of them would be granted a visa, the reason given that they were "too poor".

Too poor? Has the Foreign Office replaced immigration officials with doormen from a gentlemen's club? So instead of asking people at customs to show their passport, they look you up and down, then say, "I'm afraid sir, there is no admission into Britain without a tailored suit."

The Foreign Office originally backed the tour, saying it would "help to keep young men out of the hands of gunmen". Still, if only the footballers were rich Arab gunmen, sent by Saudi Arabia, they'd not only be allowed to play Blackburn, they'd probably buy it.

There will inevitably be suggestions from the Israeli government that the tour was a propaganda exercise for terrorists, despite the places they were due to play at. But you can imagine an Israeli statement claiming, "We have evidence that Blackburn Rovers is a front for terrorist activity, and we understand the half-time team talk by Mark Hughes goes 'We need to battle hard in midfield, and we can get the winner if we launch a merciless Holy Jihad against the infidel Arsenal flat-back-four'. And as for Chester, they might as well call themselves Hizbollah Wanderers and be done with it."

But it might be harder to explain why the tour was also backed by an organisation called Truce International, whose chair is Nancy Dell'Olio, the glamorous partner of Sven. Or Nancy Dell'Al-Zaqari HamasIntifadaOlio as she's probably known by Mossad. She said, "To refuse admission solely on the grounds they are too poor to be trusted will do Britain no good abroad."
How rancid do you have to be to make Nancy Dell'Olio sound like a campaigner from Liberty or Amnesty International? Perhaps it's a game, and their next test is to get Rolf Harris to say, "Gaw blimey, I've seen some imperialist running dogs of oppression but this Foreign Office takes the biscuit."

Or maybe this is all just practise for the English strategy to win the next World Cup. Within a couple of years almost every decent foreign footballer in the world will be playing here in the Premier League, then just before the tournament starts we'll refuse visas to all of them and give ourselves a chance. But most likely is simply that the Foreign Office has been leaned on by the Israeli government to refuse entry to the team. Because the Israelis do have a record here. In March last year they bombed the only football stadium in Gaza. And it wouldn't be surprising if, just for extra nastiness they contracted Multiplex to rebuild it.

And during the Asia Cup, which the Palestinian national team had started with an 8-0 win, the Israelis detained the five players who came from Gaza so they couldn't get to their match against Uzbekistan. This suggests the latest incident is simply part of the process of petty vindictiveness that occupying forces often dish out. Even if there's no obvious military or political advantage to be gained, you can imagine them passing a law that no one in Gaza is allowed to hum, or on Mondays everyone has to speak in a Geordie accent.

Even more annoying for the residents of Gaza, for over a year they've been under siege, the hospitals have run out of essential medicines, there's no electricity and hundreds of thousands are trapped there, unable to visit family or complete their education if it means leaving the occupied area. The justification offered often comes down to how Palestinian organisations refuse to recognise Israel's right to exist.

Yet the Israelis seem so determined to refuse Palestine's right to exist that they won't even allow them a football team. So what will they allow? Would they let them take part in the Eurovision Song Contest, or would they get the Foreign Office to refuse them entry on the grounds they were "too loud"? Would they let a Palestinian puppy enter Crufts, or would it be refused a visa for being "too frisky"?

So the Palestinian footballers are left with two options. The first is they're calling on people to send a message to the Foreign Office, at King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AH, asking for the decision to be reversed. Or they could organise their next tour to play against Scotland. Then even if they're not allowed to turn up they'll still win three-nil.


LATEST news from Chester:
The players can't come but the ball goes on!
They were looking forward to hosting the Palestinian team in Chester, and have decided to carry on efforts to help Palestinian football by going ahead with the Ball at Chester Town Hall on September 1,
with guest of honour comedian Alexei Sayle, a four course dinner and dancing to the Zoot Serious band.

Also going on sale - copies of the Palestinian strip!

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