JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel, looking to avoid censure at the FIFA Congress in Brazil on Wednesday, has defended its arrest of a Palestine national team player, telling the world soccer body he was a courier for Islamist militants.
Sameh Fares Mohammad had intended to “harm the state of Israel and its citizens”, Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat wrote in a letter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
The Palestine Football Association (PFA) has been lobbying against Israel at FIFA over Mohammad’s arrest by the Shin Bet security service in April and restrictions on the movement of other Palestinian players and officials in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel cites security concerns for such restrictions, but has drawn international calls for greater freedom of movement for Palestinians through Israeli military checkpoints.
Livnat wrote in her letter that Mohammad was detained by Israeli security officials upon his return with the Palestine national team from a training camp in Qatar in April.
She said Mohammad had met a Hamas militant in Qatar whom Israel had freed in a prisoner swap in 2011. He had given Mohammad money, a mobile phone and written messages to bring back to Hamas officials in the West Bank town of Qalqilya.
“He understood that these were clandestine meetings and even kept them secret from the team’s other members and its management,” Livnat wrote in the letter which the Sports Ministry made public.
Livnat said that during a soccer tournament in Qatar in April, Mohammad had met Talal Ibrahim abd al-Rahman Sharim of the Hamas Islamist movement, a group classified by the West as a terrorist organization.
Sharim had been serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison for security offences, until his release along with more than 1,000 other jailed Palestinians in a 2011 swap for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted in 2006 in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Mohammad had made “cynical use of his sports activities exit permit to promote Hamas’s activities,” Livnat added.
“I am confident that you will find this information worrisome and constituting clear evidence of the misuse of sports in a fashion that threatens the security of Israeli civilians,” she said.
Abdel-Majid Hejja, a senior PFA official said Mohammad had no previous political affiliation and had never been arrested before. He accused Israel of fabricating the allegations.
“This player has no connection to any political party and had never been arrested in the past. Israel can throw accusations towards anyone. Israeli pretexts are always there and ready,” Hejja told Reuters.
PFA president Jibril Rajoub said last month that FIFA had established a task force that included Palestinian and Israeli delegates but this had failed to improve the main issues of freedom of movement and access for Palestinian athletes.
Earlier this week, the PFA said Israel had denied its deputy general-secretary, Mohammad Ammassi, permission to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, from where he would have crossed to Jordan and on to Brazil.
The PFA accused Israel of arbitrarily denying passage to Ammassi. An Israeli official said Ammassi was banned from leaving the Gaza Strip because he had failed to follow procedure and submit his request at least 10 days prior to travel.
The official said Ammassi could re-submit his request, which would be duly considered.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Writing by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Nigel Hunt