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August 21, 2018 11:52 am

Northern Irish Soccer Authority Decisively Rejects Calls to Cancel Friendly Match With Israel

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Soccer fans carrying an Israeli flag at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Photo: Reuters / Henry Romero.

The top soccer authority in Northern Ireland has roundly rejected calls from supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign to nix a friendly match between Northern Ireland and Israel next month.

The Irish Football Association — soccer’s governing body in the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland — said in a statement on Monday that it had “no intention of canceling Northern Ireland’s international challenge match against Israel on 11 September.”

In purely soccer terms, friendly matches are not regarded as major competitive events so much as opportunities for coaches to experiment with new players and different tactics. Both Northern Ireland — 27 in the FIFA world rankings — and Israel — 93 in the FIFA world rankings — are shaping up to try to qualify for the next FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022. The two sides last faced off in Tel Aviv in 2013, in a contest that ended in a 1-1 tie.

But for the republican nationalist Sinn Fein party — which enthusiastically backs BDS and has historical links with the PLO and other Palestinian groups — the match is an important platform to promote the boycott campaign more broadly.

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The bid to get the match canceled has been led by Sinead Ennis, a Sinn Fein member of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly. Earlier this month, Ennis said she was making the call on “the back of the recent massacre of over 100 demonstrators and the maiming of thousands more by the Israeli army” — a reference to recent Hamas-provoked confrontations between the IDF and Palestinian rioters, many of whom were carrying weapons, on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Following Monday’s announcement by the Irish Football Association, Ennis declared that she was “once again calling on the IFA to cancel this match and send out a strong signal that the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, breach of international and human rights abuse won’t be tolerated.”

In a statement responding to Ennis, the advocacy group Northern Ireland Friends of Israel (NIFI) declared that it was “sad to see a party here seek to impose an extremely divisive political policy on a sporting association, particularly given the huge strides made by the IFA and other sporting bodies to make sport more inclusive for all.”

The NIFI observed that both teams reflect the diversity of their respective societies.

“The Northern Ireland team have Protestants and Catholics playing for it,” the NIFI pointed out.”Jews, Arabs, Druze and even Circassians have featured in the Israeli international squad — one of the most diverse and inclusive in the Middle East.”

The Palestine Football Association (PFA) — led by former convicted terrorist Jibril Rajoub — has been campaigning for Israel’s expulsion from international soccer since 2006, when Rajoub took over the body. Violent threats made by Rajoub in June contributed to the cancellation of a planned friendly match in Jerusalem between Argentina and Israel in the run-up to the World Cup competition in Russia.

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