How about fair play for Palestine?
A planned three-week visit to Britain by an under-19 football team from Palestine has been thwarted by the British government refusing to allow them in. In a respite from the troubles and tension of their occupied, battered and besieged home, the young players, mostly from Gaza, were to have enjoyed a three-week training camp with Chester, and played matches at Chester, Tranmere and Blackburn Rovers.
Many people here were looking forward to welcoming the visitors, and several organisations here were supporting the visit. But news came yesterday that the British consulate in Jerusalem had refused to issue the players or their coaches with visas.
The initiative of a Chester man, Rod Cox, - Chester's mayor was due to have welcomed the Palestinians to the city - and with stars like Alexei Sayle and Mark Steel helping fundraising -the youth tour would have been a well-deserved breakthrough for Palestinian sport, and football especially, whose players' toughest battle starts before they reach the venue. With no grass pitches to play or practice on, and their stadium in Gaza bombed by the Israelis, Palestinian footballers are unable to form a national league because of Israeli travel restrictions. The senior side's chances of entering the Asian championship were thwarted when they were prevented from leaving Gaza in time for the qualifying game against Uzbekistan.
It seems unlikely that the British consulate in Jerusalem would have acted on a high-profile application like this without instructions from the government in London. So far no explanation has come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But two reasons have been offered verbally for the refusal. First it was said that if the young Palestinians were allowed out the Israeli authorities might prevent them returning. I wonder if even Israel would risk the adverse world publicity such a mean act would bring. But anyway, it seems this argument was withdrawn. The second claim made was that given the poverty in Gaza right now, Britain was afraid the young men might use the soccer trip as an opportunity to run away and try their chances here.
Heaven and the Home Office forbid that we might have some more immigrants here, and from a country which Britain so coveted that ninety years ago it issued the famous Balfour Declaration that is so responsible for its problems.
But everyone, including the consul in Jerusalem and presumably the Foreign Office, knows the tenacity with which patriotic young Palestinians hold on to their hopes of freedom in their own homeland. To suggest that young men keen to represent their people in sport would simply use this as an escape route is a disgusting insult. In fact, it is adding insult to injury, since it was the British government's withholding of funds and support for Israeli blockade that have contributed to the poverty and misery in Gaza.
While bomber Blair is supposed to have morphed into a Middle East "Peace envoy" his former colleagues are helping Israel maintain its blockade against the Palestinians. So much for Britain's reputation as honest broker for peace.
There is a further, special and bitter, irony to forcing the cancellation of this football trip. On the same day, September 8, that the Palestine under-19s were to have had their big day at Blackburn Rovers, Israel is playing England at Wembley in their European cup qualifier.
No problems with permission here. No suggestion there is anything odd about a nation settled in Asia being "in Europe" for sporting occasions, or untoward
about its teams being able to travel freely while Palestinians are prevented from doing so, or Israel taking time from the business of waging war and occupation to enjoy itself in international sporting evcnts. Everything normal.
I have argued elsewhere that the call for a sports boycott of Israel is inappropriate, since the form racism and repression takes there is not the same as it was in Apartheid South Africa. Sport is not segregated. There are Palestinian players ("Israeli Arabs") in the Israel soccer side, much to the anger of racialists and fascists such as those supporting Betar Jerusalem. It is right to use sporting occasions to raise the issue of how Israeli forces and the Israeli authorities have hit Palestinian sport (bombing the stadium and even shooting youngsters on the pitch) but these are not the responsibility of the Israeli football team. I don't believe in collective guilt.
A contribution I made on this issue to the Just Peace UK discussion list was lifted by the dishonest crew at the "Engage" site, either because they were sniffing around for signs of dissent (I had been a bit sharp in taking up some of my friends) or simply too bereft of arguments themselves they had to try and use someone else's. When they are not accusing anyone who opposes Israel of "antisemitism" the Engage crowd occasionally don their liberal mask to tell us how important free exchanges are for peace and understanding. So I assume they will make their protests heard against the British government's banning Palestinian footballers? Not that I'm holding my breath.
Palestinian solidarity campaigners are taking this ban as further reason to protest at the Israel game at Wembley. I share their feeling, but am still inclined to disagree with the sports boycott call as a tactic. The Israeli soccer players are not keeping out the Palestinian team. The British government is. It is British politicians and the Foreign Office who should be targeted.
In particular, since the high point of the Palestinian trip was to have been a match at Blackburn Rovers, perhaps a well-known Blackburn supporter, the MP Jack Straw, ought to be tackled on the subject.
I have written to my MP urging him to ask the Foreign Office for an explanation of its action.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign is recommending people write directly to the FCO:
Demand to know the reason for the U19 teams visa refusals.
Request that the decision made be reversed.
FCO, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AH
Tel: 020 7008 1500
Perhaps people abroad could also ask the UK government's diplomatic and cultural representatives why Britain is barring a soccer team from Palestine.