Tennis Courts, the Latest Battle Ground
Throughout the years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has spilled over onto many different stages – movie award ceremonies, the theater, musicians’ lyrics, photography exhibitions and so on... Major newspapers have apparently only now realized that this political conflict is being reflected in sports as well, and of course, they are up in arms about it. Dubai is now taking the brunt of hostility and criticism for its decision to bar entry to an Israeli tennis player, Shahar Peer, who formerly served in the Israeli army. She was travelling to compete in the Barclays Dubai Championships next week.
The tournament’s organizers explained that their decision was based on security concerns, saying that Peer's presence would antagonize local tennis fans who had only a few weeks ago watched horrific events unfold during Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. The organizers said that they simply could not guarantee Peer’s safety on the tennis court. Ironically, the Israel Football Association took a similar decision during its military offensive in Gaza when it barred any football matches from being held in Palestinian communities inside Israel, citing concerns for the ‘safety’ of its Israeli players. While Dubai’s decision is officially based on security concerns, many agree that it is also influenced by politics, an indirect condemnation of Israel for its indiscriminate killing in Gaza.
Despite the circumstances, newspapers, tennis players, and organizers expressed outrage at Dubai’s decision. The Wall Street Journal, one of the sponsors of the event, immediately withdrew its funding when it heard about Peer’s visa rejection. The Tennis Channel protested the decision by announcing its refusal to televise the event as previously planned. A U.S. tour company, IsramWorld, also canceled its tours to Dubai because of the visa incident, calling Dubai’s decision “an odious act of political bigotry.” In addition, famous tennis players such as Amelie Mauresmo, Ana Ivanovic and Venus Williams criticized the decision, saying it was “not acceptable”, and that “sports should be above politics”. As Ken Solomon, the chairman and chief executive of the Tennis Channel, said, “Sports are about merit, absent of background, class, race, creed, color or religion. They are simply about talent… If Israel were barring a citizen of an Arab nation, we would have made the same decision.”
These are all noble sentiments indeed, but do they actually work both ways? Do they apply to Palestinian athletes as well as Israeli ones? Anybody who has taken even the briefest of looks at the state of sports in Palestine will answer with a quick and decisive ‘No’. Instead, what we have here is just another example of double standards – one standard for Israelis, but another standard completely for Palestinians. Did any of these newspapers, athletes, and sport channel executives say anything when Israel bombed the headquarters of the Palestinian Football Association, built partially with funds from the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA)? The facility, which housed the men and women’s football teams, now lies in ruins. What about when Israeli air strikes destroyed sports clubs and youth organization headquarters? What about when three top Palestinian football players in the prime of their careers were killed in their homes in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead?
If you cast your memory a bit further back to 2004, you might remember when Israel prevented the Palestinian football team from playing on an international level during the World Cup qualifiers. Israel banned several key members of the team from leaving the Gaza Strip for what would have been the second leg of a match against Chinese Taipei, after Palestine won the first leg by eight goals to none. Palestine lost the second match, but more significantly, they lost their chance as World Cup contenders. In 2007, Gazan residents of the Palestinian team once again were refused exit visas to travel to Singapore for a match which Singapore then won by default. That same year, the Palestinian Gaza under-19 team was banned from playing in Britain when the British consulate in Jerusalem refused to grant them visas because of a risk that they would not return home to Gaza. Governments and consulates reserved and used their right to refuse entry and exit to those aspiring young athletes, but no major news channel or organization said a word about it.
When the Palestinian sports foundation, Atlas Sport, published a report in October 2008 detailing the Israeli targeting of Palestinian athletes and their affiliates, the report was largely ignored. It listed the 375 Palestinian sportsmen killed and the 2000 injured at the hands of Israeli forces since late 2000, as well as the dozens of sports facilities and club buildings which had been destroyed for various reasons in both the West Bank and Gaza, preventing Palestinian youth from engaging in high-level competitions or even local club sports.
The fact is that any Palestinian athlete from the West Bank or Gaza faces many physical and mental barriers when it comes to exit and entry visas, training facilities, morale, and funding. Funding, when it does come, is intermittent, and many athletes and coaches often volunteer their own money for the training they so desperately need. The fact is that in the outside world, sports may be purely about talent, separate of nationality, race, or religion. But in Israel, your talent will always be given secondary importance compared to your background. If you were the most talented athlete in the world, but you happened to be from Gaza, you could kiss goodbye to any opportunity of competing internationally on a level playing field. There will never be a level playing field for Palestinians until they can travel to competitions freely, without the risk of returning to a bombed training facility.
There is no limit to the extent of double standards. Israel can ban anybody it wants from entering Israel for no reason at all, including high-ranking UN officials, but will complain and cry ‘racism’ and ‘anti-Semitism’ when their own citizens are faced with a similar situation. Believing that sports are above politics is an admirable thought, if only it were true.