Opinion: Why it’s impossible to separate sport and politics at Giro start in Israel

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The Giro d’Italia will start outside Europe for the first time this year and, in heading to Jerusalem, the race organisers have chosen one of the most contentious locations on the planet. Shane Stokes explains why he decided not to cover the Grande Partenza in Israel.

It took Yaser Murtaja hours to die. Shot by an Israeli army sniper, the bullet ripped through the left side of his body and caused serious damage to his spleen and arteries. Footage after the shooting shows him sprawled on the ground, arms raised over his head, grimacing in pain.

Despite being conscious and coherent, his situation continuously deteriorated. He underwent a four-hour operation to try to save his life, and then a second surgery when things worsened.

Then he died.

Murtaja was father of one, a Palestinian journalist and the co-founder of Ain Media Production Company. It produced video used by international media outlets, showing conditions within Gaza to those outside. The footage included the Blockade of the Gaza Strip and conflicts between Israel and Gaza.

On the day he was shot, he was covering the Great March of Return border protests at Gaza. He was wearing both a helmet and a blue flak jacket clearly marked Press, yet was hit by sniper fire. Another journalist, Ahmed Abu Hussein, was similarly identifiable when he was shot by an Israeli sniper on April 13. He died 12 days later.

At least 49 Palestinians have been killed since the protests began, including five children. More than 5,000 have been wounded. Many have been hit by live ammunition, with the injuries leading to the loss of limbs in some cases.

Doctors treating some of the patients have said that expanding dumdum bullets were used. These projectiles are banned for use in war by the Hague convention, and seem designed to inflict the maximum possible damage.


Media reports have said that zero Israelis have been hurt or killed in the protests, raising questions about the proportionality of the army actions. Footage of soldiers celebrating after shooting protestors has also jarred.

The demonstrations began on March 30, with those involved calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza, and the right for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to be allowed to return to their former homelands. The protests will continue until mid-May and, it seems, so too will the sniper fire.

The mood was celebratory at the team presentation on Thursday, one day before the start of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

Of politics and sport

Less than 100 kilometres away from the border with Gaza, the Giro d’Italia will begin on Friday. The opening stage is a 9.7 kilometre individual time trial, with the next two days covering 167 kilometres to Tel Aviv and 233 kilometres to Eilat.

The battles will be metaphorical; the skirmishes sporting ones. With high security in place, the chance of bloodshed is tiny. In truth, there are vastly different life experiences between Israelis and Gaza’s Palestinians. The areas the race visits are being marketed as idyllic, while approximately 1.8 million are trapped inside Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and living in very difficult conditions. There is a lack of clean water, limited electricity, and high levels of poverty.

Meanwhile, away from Gaza, conditions are better for many Palestinians. However there are reports of harassment and discrimination; expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights have been deemed a violation of international law by numerous UN resolutions.

When the Giro was first confirmed for Israel, inevitable criticisms came. In response, there were some who insisted sport and politics should not mix. The same defence was used decades ago when sportspeople and others broke the boycott to compete in South Africa.

Sport, they suggested back then, was so far removed from politics that it should essentially be immune to discussion and debate. Giro race director Mauro Vegni echoed this last November. “The reality is that we want it to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion,” he said then.

And yet, things immediately became political. When RCS Sport announced the race route, the company published material which listed stage one’s time trial as taking part in West Jerusalem.

Both the United Nations and the European Union dispute Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem, with the UN regarding it as part of the occupied Palestinian territory. However Israel claims the entire city as its undivided capital, and demanded that the Giro change its reference to the city.

“In Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, there is no east or west. There is one unified Jerusalem,” said ministers Yariv Levin and Miri Regev. They referred to the use of the term West Jerusalem as “a breach of the agreements with the Israeli government.”

And then, a threat. “If the wording does not change, the Israeli government will not be a partner in the event.”

RCS swiftly backtracked. This, predictably, angered Palestinians, which said that the lack of any distinction between East and West Jerusalem served to “legitimize the annexation” of the city.

They also objected to promotional materials on the Giro’s social media that include photos and videos of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Wording and images aside, there are other elements which underline how political the hosting is there.

Gilad Erdan is Israel’s minister for strategic affairs. He is also, incidentally, one of the politicians seeking to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement trying to secure Palestinian human rights. In March of last year he announced that his ministry was planning to create a new database of Israeli citizens who support BDS. This is, presumably, being done to push back against those people.

Of the Giro’s start in Israel, he said that it “is a huge achievement in and of itself that strengthens Israel’s legitimacy.”

If that sounds political, then also consider that the Grande Partenza in Israel – the first-ever Giro start outside Europe – is taking place 70 years after the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and at a time when major celebrations are happening. The Giro may not be marketed as such, but it’s hard not to see the Grande Partenza – the biggest ever sporting event to be held in the country – as fitting into these celebrations.

Meanwhile, for Palestinians, the establishment of the Jewish state on May 14, 1948, is a difficult point in history. It triggered the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and a Palestinian exodus known as the Nakba in Arabic, meaning ‘disaster’ or ‘cataclysm.’ Under that exodus, more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, and between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were sacked.

And so, while Israel celebrates the 70th anniversary, Palestinians mourn. And protest, which has led to the shootings mentioned above.

A PR exercise?

So what does this all mean for the Giro d’Italia? A 10-million euro payout to RCS has already been mentioned, although one person with close familiarity to RCS suggested to CyclingTips this week that the actual sum could be far higher than that.

That money is important for a company seeking to maximise the return from its biggest event, but RCS will also be seeing the downsides. Since the Israel start was announced, the company and the race have been under repeated criticism.

Unveiling the 2018 race route on the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People was, at best, a hugely unfortunate coincidence. Meanwhile, last autumn the BDS movement said the event represents a “sports-washing of Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”

This was echoed by the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine [ECCP], which announced that over 120 groups and individuals were calling on RCS Sport to move the location of the race.

“The signatories stress that holding the Giro d’Italia in Israel will both cover up Israel’s military occupation and discrimination against Palestinians and increase Israel’s sense of impunity, encouraging continued denial of Palestinians’ UN-stipulated rights,” it said in a statement then.

The ECCP also pointed out that the race is working with the Israeli company Comtec Group, which it says has activities in illegal Israeli settlements. And it noted that in official race imagery, maps and videos, the Giro d’Italia was portraying East Jerusalem as if it were part of Israel and was the unified capital of the State of Israel.

The route, too, came under criticism. “The final stage planned for southern Israel will pass by dozens of Palestinian Bedouin villages Israel refuses to recognize or provide with ‘the most basic of services, including electricity, water, clinics, schools and roads,’ one of which Israel has demolished over 100 times.”

Signatories included Jewish groups Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, Union of Progressive Jews in Belgium, Italian Network Jews Against the Occupation and Jews for Justice for Palestinians UK.

Another of the signatories was the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, who has been an outspoken political voice for decades.

Contacted in recent weeks by CyclingTips, he outlined his position in relation to the BDS approach and also the Giro itself. Did he agree with the calls to boycott or relocate the race?

“My own feeling is that boycotts and sanctions against Israel should focus on the occupied territories and crimes committed there and any outside participants in these crimes,” Chomsky said. “That’s a strong case, well-founded in law and clear-cut, a major contribution to the Palestinian cause. Protests aimed at Israel within its recognized borders commonly muddy the waters, and undermine the force of the protests. They immediately raise the question why not target the US, or France, or UK, which are responsible for much worse crimes.

“[The Giro] does fall within the guidelines that I think are appropriate, particularly bringing in Jerusalem as part of Israel and touring in the regions where Bedouins are being expelled and harshly repressed. In fact, these are places where I’ve visited Bedouin protesters.

“It does seem to be a PR exercise for the benefit of Israel, not an honest choice.”

On Wednesday, two days before the start, human rights group Amnesty International also suggested the Grande Partenza in Israel was a public relations move.

“We’re not going to tell the Giro d’Italia organisers where they should and shouldn’t start the race,” said Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen. “But the Jerusalem launch inevitably means Israel’s dismal human rights record is going to be in the spotlight.

“The authorities in Jerusalem may have thought that the glitz of Giro d’Italia might have a ‘sportswash’ effect, removing some of the stain of Israel’s human rights record. Instead, it’s likely to bring it back into focus yet again.”

Staying at home

In the light of the recent violence, but also the bombing of Gaza in 2008-09 and 2014, my decision not to go to the Giro start felt logical. As Israel’s defenders will point out, every country has a right to defend itself: that is true, but I believe that defence must be proportional. The huge imbalance in casualties shows this is not the case.

In the 2014 Gaza war, for example, less than 80 soldiers and civilians on the Israeli side were killed. However over 2,000 Palestinians lost their lives. As for the current conflict relating to the border protests, the imbalance is even more pronounced. There are no reports of casualties on the Israeli side; as already mentioned, at least 49 Palestinians have been killed and more than 5,000 injured.

There will, of course, be some who disagree with what has been presented here, and who will disagree with the decision to boycott the start. Writing this opinion piece is not intended to be controversial, but rather an honest attempt to explain my position.

I know many journalists, and riders, who are heading to the Grande Partenza. Each person will have made their own assessment of the situation and decided if they agree or disagree with the race start there. I do know of others who have serious qualms with RCS’s decision, and one highly respected media professional who decided not to go.

Is it Israel alone? No. In recent years I decided not to cover the Presidential Tour of Turkey – a race I had previously relished attending – because of the government’s crackdown on protestors and imprisoning of academics. I’d similar reservations about the world championships in Qatar, a country with a dismal human rights record.

I’ve also been highly critical of the backers of the Bahrain-Merida team over allegations of torture, and so this opinion piece shouldn’t be regarded as singling out one country.

There are also Jewish people within cycling and elsewhere that I have a tremendous amount of respect for; this is nothing to do with religion or culture.

Ethics in sport is often underlined as being crucial. But that doesn’t only pertain to doping, race fixing or other forms of cheating. There are also ethical considerations that organisers, teams and riders have to make in other areas too.

So what could RCS Sport have done? When the organiser staged the 2014 Grande Partenza in Ireland, efforts were made to include those on both sides of the historical divide. The race started in the north, drawing on the cooperation of both Unionists and Nationalists, and symbolically crossed the border on day three to finish in Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland.

The bridge-building symbolism was clear. Granted, it’s worth noting that a long-running peace agreement was already in place, and that this is something that is yet to happen between Israel and Palestine. Still, I’m not aware of any significant bridge-building gestures that have been made between the two communities in Israel to support claims that this year’s Grande Partenza is about peace.

If there are, they haven’t been sufficiently publicised.

Ending the race in Rome does have its own symbolism; linking the Jewish and Catholic communities over the course of the three weeks builds bridges of its own. But if that can’t, or won’t, be done with the Muslim community, then the Grande Partenza is missing out on an important opportunity.

Perhaps starting the race there is simply happening far too soon. One of the Giro d’Italia’s mottos is Amore Infinito, or infinite love. It’s an admirable theme, without question.

Yet the phrase seems empty when, 100 kilometres from the race start, snipers aim their bullets at protestors and press members, then pull the trigger.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CyclingTips’ editorial stance.

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