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World focus on fifth division Ariel City Football Club

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The club, along with five other Israeli clubs, play their matches in settlements, considered occupied land by much of the international community.
by JACK MILNER | Sep 29, 2016

Ariel City is a fifth division soccer club. At an average match, Ariel City attract fewer than 100 spectators at home and their importance should be minimal. But this is Israel and once they attract political interest, even Ariel City can soon become one of Israel's "most important football clubs”.

This is because the club, along with five other Israeli clubs, play their matches in settlements, considered occupied land by much of the international community.

Most of Ariel’s players are just paid travel expenses and the total budget is barely more than $50 000 a year, most of which comes from the local municipality. The home ground is not really a stadium - it is nothing more than a field with some lights.

Ariel made two new signings this season - Arab Israeli brothers Mohammed and Yusef Daher who ironically, live inside the Jewish state. Yusef Daher, a goalkeeper, said he and his brother have felt no discrimination since they joined, though Palestinians cannot enter settlements without special permission.

"I haven't once felt weird or that I had come to a settlement," he said, speaking in Arabic occasionally mixed with Hebrew.

Last Saturday, Ariel played its first game of the season, winning 4-1, with Mohammed scoring two goals.

Sixty-six members of the European Parliament have called for Fifa, the world football controlling body, to force the Israel Football Association to ban the clubs from their leagues.

Hugh Lovatt, Israel and Palestine co-ordinator for the European Council on Foreign Relations, said a ban would send a "very strong message" to Israel that it "cannot use football teams as a political tool to try to impose acceptance of its occupation".

He added: "These teams are basically playing with a Fifa flag on occupied territory."

The executive committee of Fifa is due to meet on October 13 to decide whether to demand that the Israeli Football Association (IFA) ban the small-time settlement clubs who play in their lower divisions.

Israel could even be suspended from international competition over the issue.

Human Rights Watch released a report last week Monday accusing the international soccer federation of sponsoring matches on land illegally taken from Palestinians. The group is demanding that Fifa require the Israel Football Association to move all games played in the settlements to within Israel proper.

“By holding games on stolen land, Fifa is tarnishing the beautiful game of football,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine country director at Human Rights Watch. “Fifa should step up now to give settlement clubs a red card and insist the Israel Football Association play by the rules.”

But Israel has hit back. The "combination of sports and politics will not succeed," IFA spokesman Shlomi Barzel told i24news. "We continue to believe that Fifa will know how to deal with the attempt to be dragged from the football field into a political one.

“Israel Football Association will continue to respect the institutions of Fifa as we always did, and will keep on developing and maintaining the football game as a bridge connecting people and not as a wall that divides between them,” he added.

Shay Bernthal, Ariel's chairman, laughed at the idea that his club is now at the centre of a storm. "It's very funny to me that our team, a very poor team, has made headlines all over the world," Bernthal said ahead of a training session last week.

Yet little related to settlements, which the international community has consistently declared illegal, can be seen as apolitical. More than 370 000 Israelis now live inside the West Bank, in communities largely closed off to Palestinians.

Israelis argue they are being singled out unfairly and point to other disputes globally, although Fifa has in fact also taken action in other such situations. After Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, Fifa prevented Crimean teams from joining the Russian league.

Additionally, breakaway Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Luhansk Republic are all excluded from Fifa. In Western Sahara, however, teams play in the Moroccan league despite no formal recognition of Rabat's claim to the territory.

Bernthal, however, insists the settlement clubs will play on. 

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