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June 4, 2018 11:39 am

‘Burn Lionel Messi’s Shirt!’ Palestinian Soccer Chief Rajoub Targets Argentine Legend as Friendly Match With Israel Approaches

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Argentine soccer legend Lionel Messi with Asael Shalbo (l), an Israeli, and Mohammad Roman (r), a Palestinian, after an FC Barcelona joint training session for Jewish and Arab youths at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium in August 2013. Photo: Reuters / Nir Elias.

A top Palestinian leader touted as a possible successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has urged soccer fans to burn photos and replica shirts of Lionel Messi, as the Argentine legend prepares for a pre-World Cup friendly against the Israeli national team in Jerusalem this Saturday.

Messi “is a big symbol so we are going to target him personally and we call on all to burn his picture and his shirt and to abandon him,” a fuming Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestine Football Association (PFA), declared before reporters on Sunday.

“We still hope that Messi will not come,” added Rajoub.

The match at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem is merely one of the several friendly fixtures which all 32 World Cup teams routinely play to warm up for the competition, which begins in Russia on June 14. But according to Rajoub, in an earlier letter to Claudio Tapia, the head of the Argentine FA, the “Israeli government has turned a regular sports match into a political tool. As was widely covered in Argentinian media, the match now is being played in order to celebrate the ‘70th anniversary of the State of Israel.’”

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A former convicted terrorist released in a 1985 prisoner exchange between Israel and an extremist Palestinian faction, Rajoub has straddled the worlds of politics and sports for more than a decade. He also heads the PA’s Supreme Council for Sport and Youth Affairs and is the chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, in addition to his role with the Palestine FA. In the past, he served as a national security adviser to the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and was the head of the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank from 1994 until 2002.

Rajoub has long used his sporting affiliations to promote a boycott of Israeli athletes and to encourage terror against the Jewish state. In 2014, he violated the regulations of the International Olympic Committee, of which Israel is a member, by describing “normalization in sports with the Zionist enemy” as a “crime against humanity.” The following year, he pursued a failed campaign to expel Israel from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.

A more recent effort to persuade FIFA to sanction six Israeli clubs based in the West Bank similarly failed after opposition from European soccer associations, causing Rajoub to opine that Palestinian soccer players were being made “scapegoats for what some European countries did against the Jews last century” — a reference to the Holocaust. And a damning report on Rajoub’s activities issued by the Israeli NGO Palestinian Media Watch in 2016 emphasized his defiance of the “fundamental Olympic goal to use sports as a bridge to peace” by naming sporting competitions in honor of Palestinian terrorists.

“Permitting Rajoub to participate in activities related to the Olympic Committee, when he cheers Palestinian terrorists for murdering innocent Israeli civilians, brings disgrace on the International Olympic Committee, its members, and the 2016 Olympic Games,” the PMW report stated.

Messi, meanwhile, has not commented on Rajoub’s threats to hound him, but is unlikely to pull out of Saturday’s match. The Argentine captain — whose dizzying achievements include four UEFA Champions League victories and nine Spanish league titles with Barcelona, along with four FIFA ‘Ballon d’Or’ Awards — last visited Israel in 2013. On that trip, billed as a “peace tour,” Messi and his Barcelona side organized training sessions for young Israeli and Palestinian players, and also visited the Western Wall in Old City of Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

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