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FIFA delays stand on Israeli settlement football teams

In advance of annual congress, FIFA says it is 'premature' to take any final decision on Israeli clubs in the West Bank.

FIFA has said in a statement that it is "premature" to take any final decision on the controversial issue of Israeli football clubs in the West Bank.

The communique came after a five-hour long FIFA Council meeting on Tuesday in Bahrain, in advance of the issue being scheduled for discussion by its annual congress, which takes place in Manama on May 11.

"Following the report by chairman of the Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine, Tokyo Sexwale, the FIFA Council considered that at this stage it is premature for the FIFA Congress to take any decision," read the statement.

It is not clear after the statement whether the issue will remain on the congress' agenda.

The Palestine Football Association (PFA) argues that the presence of six Israeli football clubs playing inside settlements in the occupied West Bank, that are seen as illegal under international law, are also in breach of FIFA statutes.

These statutes forbid another member association playing on another territory without permission.

Israel argues that FIFA rules are unenforceable as there is no permanent border.

The issue, which has become a long-running sore for FIFA, was further inflamed this week after reports that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, phoned Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, apparently asking for the item to be taken off of this week's agenda.

Tuesday's decision to delay was immediately criticised, reported AFP news agency.

"FIFA has today failed in what is a litmus test of its proclaimed commitment to human rights," said Martin Konecny of the Brussels-based think-tank European Middle East Project.

Mandate expiring

The committee's mandate is set to expire at the FIFA congress in May 2017.

In 2015, former South African minister Sexwale was appointed head of the monitoring committee responsible for addressing a number of Palestinian complaints, including issues over freedom of movement for football players and the Israeli football teams based in settlements.

Palestinian leaders have demanded that the Israeli federation be suspended from world football unless it orders that the six teams - Beitar Ironi, Beitar Ironi Ariel, Beitar Givat Zeev, Beitar Maaleh Adomim, Hapoel Oranit and Hapoel Bikat Hayarden - be relocated.

In a report published in September 2016, Human Rights Watch stated that "by allowing the IFA to hold matches inside settlements, FIFA is engaging business activity that supports Israeli settlements, contrary to the human rights commitments it recently affirmed".

The Israeli government has argued that the settlements in question were built in Area C of the occupied West Bank, where Israel has full security and administrative control under the Oslo Accords, and should not be deemed unlawful.

However, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in December 2016 that reaffirmed the unlawfulness of the settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Sexwale met heads of both the Palestinian and Israeli federations in Zurich in March - a meeting described as "stormy".

According to AFP, Sexwale gave three possible options to solve the ongoing dispute, including retaining the current state of play and giving the Israeli federation the chance to remedy the situation involving the six clubs.

Rajoub said none of the three options met Palestinian expectations.

The AFP news agency, quoting an Israeli official, reported in April that "dozens of Israeli ambassadors have received instructions to engage in dialogue with FIFA delegates in the countries where they are posted to counter the attempt by the Palestinians".

Susan Shalabi, PFA vice-president, said last month: "By involving diplomats in this issue, Israel is breaching FIFA's statutes again.

"Our position on this matter is very clear: We can't accept Israeli football association running its activities on our territory. If we accept a compromise, we will be part of the crime," said Shalabi.

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