Uefa president Michel Platini has rejected calls to strip Israel of a high-profile football tournament and rebuked the Palestinian Football Association for lobbying against Israel.
Next year’s European Under-21 Championship will go ahead as planned — despite what Mr Platini called “a certain amount of pressure being put on us”.
In a strongly worded rebuke to the president of the Palestinian FA, Mr Plarini rejected his demands and said that Uefa did not believe in “punishing people and isolating them”.
Activists, including former Leeds and Manchester United player Eric Cantona and former West Ham United and Tottenham striker Frédéric Kanouté, had joined the call on Uefa to move the tournament from Israel as a punishment for the detention of a number of Palestinian footballers without trial or charge.
Mr Cantona wrote to Uefa claiming: “Racism, human rights abuses and gross violations of international law are daily occurrences in that country.
“It is time to end Israel’s impunity and to insist on the same standards of equality, justice and respect for international law that we demand of other states.”
Mr Platini rejected the boycott calls in a letter to Israel FA chairman Avi Luzon on Monday.
He wrote that Israel had “earned the right to host the competition through a fair, democratic vote”.
The campaign centred on the case of Palestinian national team footballer Mahmoud Sarsak, who has been on hunger strike in an Israeli jail for three months.
He was detained without charge almost three years ago on suspicion of being an Islamic Jihad member. A deal to end his hunger strike was agreed on Monday and he is likely to be released next month.
Prior to that deal, Palestinian FA president Jibril Rajoub had written to Uefa claiming Israel was “in direct violation” of Fifa regulations. He wrote: “For athletes in Palestine there is no real freedom of movement and the risks of being detained or even killed are always looming before their eyes.”
In response, Mr Platini criticised Mr Rajoub for leaking his complaint to the media — a move he said was “ill-advised”.
“I was surprised to read in the press that you had written me a letter… I know you to be direct and frank, qualities which I greatly appreciate, but which it seems not all your advisers share.
“We cannot hold the Israel FA responsible for the political situation in the region or for legal procedures in place in its country. You know better than anyone that it is not by punishing people and isolating them that we achieve our aims. It is through dialogue that solutions are found.”
Mr Platini said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge and Fifa president Sepp Blatter supported Uefa’s stance on Israel’s hosting of the tournament.
Mr Platini also revealed that he had asked Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, a member of Fifa’s executive committee, to intervene in Mr Sarsak’s case.
Mr Luzon replied to Mr Platini on Tuesday: “We appreciate and thank you for your confidence in us and for your and Uefa’s support and confidence in the Israel FA. We will never forget that.”
The Israel FA chief said he had already approached relevant Israeli authorities in an attempt to raise concerns about Mr Sarsak’s situation.
Israel beat Bulgaria, Czech Republic, England and Wales to win the right to host the 2013 tournament – the under-21 version of the competition currently being played in Poland and Ukraine. It is likely to feature some of the world’s leading young players.
Mr Platini’s intervention came two days after Israel’s women’s side was barracked by protesters during a match in Edinburgh.
On Saturday, the Israelis played Scotland’s women in a qualifying match for Uefa’s 2013 Women’s European Championships at Hearts’ Tynecastle Stadium.
Among the 817 people in the stands was a group of around 200 anti-Israel protesters, who booed the Israelis’ every touch and chanted anti-Israel slogans for the duration of the match. The Israeli national anthem was also booed before kick-off.
When asked before the game about the intended protests, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign chairman Mick Napier had refused to say whether the group would launch a pitch invasion, leading Uefa officials and Hearts to bring in extra police and security measures in an effort to ensure the protesters did not cause further disruption.
Israel lost 8-0 and is bottom of its qualifying group, having lost every game in the competition.
Defender Diana Radman criticised Uefa for allowing political protests inside the stadium during the game.
“I knew before we came that there would be protests and something would happen, but at previous games the officials did not allow protesters into the game. Uefa needs to act on this sort of abuse,” she said.
“There were players on both sides who were affected. It was not an easy experience. We were upset. This would never happen with the men. If anything happens in the stadium at a men’s international, then people are removed and the associations are fined”.
“It is hard enough getting people to come to watch women’s football. The protests are very damaging. In France we had people invade the pitch.”
Ms Radman said her team-mates had not considered walking off the pitch as the abuse continued. “As players, we will play no matter what. But after the game I wanted to get to the locker-room quickly. We should not have to worry about things that are political; we just want to play.”
There were further protests when Israel played Wales’ women’s team in Wrexham on Wednesday evening.
Members of the Wrexham Peace and Justice Forum had called on the Welsh players to boycott the match, and invoked Israel’s security barrier to encourage fans to imagine Wrexham separated by an eight-foot-high wall.
Following a demonstration outside the Racecourse Ground, stewards and police stopped a number of protesters entering the stadium before kick off. Others were evicted during the game, which Israel lost 5-0.