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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Israel arrests Palestinian soccer players


Arrested Palestine Olympic soccer team goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois (Source: Israel Defense Force)

By James M. Dorsey

Israeli security forces have arrested the goalkeeper of the Palestinian Olympic soccer team on charges of involvement in a shoot-out with Israeli troops, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinian soccer officials said the arrest of 23 year-old Omar Abu Rois, an alleged member of Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, was followed the next day by the detention of Ahmad Khalil Ali Abu El-Asal a player for the Aqabat Jaber Palestinian refugee camp soccer team.

The military said Mr. Abu Rois was one of 13 people arrested following an attack on Israeli troops in January in the Al Amari Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The military charged that the group had fired Kalashnikovs that had been provided by the head of security for the local branch of the Red Crescent, Palestine’s equivalent of the Red Cross. The security chief, Monastery Abbas, was among those detained. Mr. Abu Rois, according to the military, is a Red Crescent employee.

The military said the shooting occurred on January 20. It said no one was hurt in the incident but that an Israeli vehicle had been damaged. It said that interrogation of the detainees had revealed that Mr. Abu Rois had prepared the weapons used in the attack a day after the incident for return to a monastery where they had originally been stashed. It said the group had planned further attacks on several Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.

In a letter to world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter copied to Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Zhang Jilong and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacque Rogue, Palestine Football Association (PFA) president Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief, said Mr. Abu Rois was arrested on February 20 and Mr. El-Asal on February 21 in what he described as “another Israeli transgression against Palestinian players.” Mr. Rajoub said the two players had been “abducted” by Israeli occupation authorities.

PFA officials did not respond to questions about the background and possible political affiliations and activities of the two detained players.

Mr. Rajoub said Mr. Abou Rois had been arrested at work and taken to an unknown location while Mr. El-Asal was detained at his home.

The Palestinian soccer boss asked Mr. Blatter to intervene on behalf of the two players, charging that it “was in total disregard of all agreements signed by the Israeli side and in direct violation to the simplest right of our players.”

In an emailed response, FIFA official Guy-Phillipe Mathieu said FIFA would take “adequate steps.”

Mr. Rajoub, who also heads the Palestinian Olympic Committee, last year reached with the help of the IOC agreement with his counterparts at the Israeli soccer association and Olympic committee on ways to overcome Israeli security obstacles facing Palestinian players and athletes. They agreed to set up a telephone hotline so that Israeli sports bodies could intervene to ease the movement of Palestinian athletes, coaches, and officials if and when they encountered problems at checkpoints or in requests to travel.

The effort however has so far produced limited results. Palestinian officials say that FIFA shipments are often still delayed at Ben Gurion Airport customs, which incurs storage and other costs that can amount to a multi-fold of the value of the goods shipped.

Nonetheless, there has been a limited improvement in athletes' ability to move around the West Bank or between the Palestine Authority-controlled region and the Gaza Strip. "The problem is the Israeli committee is not the relevant authority for the movement of people and equipment. We are trying, but I don't want to embarrass anyone," Mr. Rajoub said in an interview last year, suggesting that the Israeli sports body had little sway with security authorities.

Mr. Rajoub as well as other soccer officials and players conceded however that crossing checkpoints had become somewhat easier. They attributed this primarily to improved security with Israel less concerned about the threat of terrorist attacks being launched from the West Bank. In addition, the PFA has created sleeping quarters in the Faisal Hussein Stadium so that players can get together to train without worrying whether they will be able to return home.

The easing of travel has meant that the Palestinian team has been able to host and travel for Olympic and World Cup qualifiers even though it failed to qualify for this year’s London Olympics. That is in stark contrast to 2007 when FIFA forced the Palestinians to forfeit a World Cup qualifier to Singapore because they failed to field a full team after Israel denied permits to 18 players and officials from Gaza.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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