Palestinians celebrated a diplomatic victory on Wednesday as Israel confirmed the cancellation of a high-profile visit to Jerusalem by Argentina’s national soccer team, which had been scheduled for Saturday.

A statement from the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires late Tuesday night claimed that Argentina’s players had decided to back out of a planned game against Israel’s national team because of “threats and provocations directed at Lionel Messi,” the superstar Argentine captain.

The nature of those threats was not immediately clear, but Argentina’s foreign minister, Jorge Faurie, said in a radio interview on Wednesday that the team had been unsettled by “a series of threats that came via the internet.” When a journalist pointed out to Faurie that Messi had apparently shrugged off threats from ISIS about traveling to Russia for the World Cup, the foreign minister suggested that these messages were somehow worse.

Israel’s sports minister, Miri Regev, showed reporters images from the online campaign pressing Argentina to cancel the match — including one of a protester in Spain holding an Argentine shirt splattered with red paint — which she described as a form of terrorism comparable, in her view, to the 1972 hostage crisis at the Olympic Games in Munich, in which 11 Israeli athletes were seized by Palestinian militants and killed during a botched rescue attempt.


Israeli Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Argentina has called off a World Cup warmup match against Israel following protests by pro-Palestinian groups. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Miri Regev, Israel’s sports and culture minister, displayed images from the online campaign against Argentina’s planned soccer match in Jerusalem, at a news conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP

The images Regev displayed, however, included no death threats, but elements of a routine online campaign: a photograph of protesters marching in Buenos Aires, an editorial cartoon and memes, including one featuring an appeal to Messi from a Palestinian footballer, Muhammad Khalil Obeid, who lost a leg after being shot in both knees by Israeli snipers while protesting in Gaza.

On Wednesday evening, though, Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that an Argentine sports journalist close to Messi, Juan Cortese, said “there were no threats against the players’ lives and they did not take part in the decision” to cancel the match, which had been taken by Argentina’s government.

While Palestinian officials and activists from the grassroots Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement had appealed to Messi to not take part in what they called a political stunt, the only threat they leveled against the player was that his popularity would suffer. The Palestine Football Association president, Jibril Rajoub, called on fans to burn replicas of the star’s shirt if he played in Jerusalem.

Catalan protesters who waved two Argentina soccer jerseys daubed with red paint outside the squad’s training ground in Barcelona on Tuesday told the Argentine newspaper Clarín that they were not threatening Messi, but appealing to him to not help Israel launder its image by distracting attention from its ongoing slaughter of Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

In a letter to his Argentine counterpart last week, Rajoub had urged Argentina to cancel the match because the Israeli sports minister had intervened to move it from Haifa, a city inside Israel’s 1948 borders, to Jerusalem, where Israel has ruled over hundreds of thousands of Palestinians it denies full civil rights since in 1967. “The Israeli government has turned a regular sports match into a political tool,” Rajoub argued. The match, he added “is now being played in order to celebrate the ’70th anniversary of the State of Israel,’ and the match itself is to take place in a stadium built on one of the at least 418 Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel 70 years ago, Al Malha.”

While Rajoub thanked Messi on Wednesday and said that he would not have objected if the game had been played in Haifa as originally scheduled, supporters of the BDS movement pledged to keep pressing for a full sports boycott of Israel, modeled on the pressure campaign against apartheid-era South Africa.

Even if the Argentine captain has not endorsed the boycott movement, Palestinian and Israeli activists correctly noted that his team’s refusal to play in Jerusalem was a blow to the promise Israel’s government makes to its citizens: that they can live normal lives and pay no price for continuing to deny civil rights to millions of Palestinians under their army’s control.

As Hagai El-Ad, director of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, told me two years ago in Jerusalem, the Israeli public is clear about what it wants: “more of the same, with no consequences.” Which means that Israelis will see no need to end the occupation that started 51 years ago this week as long as their country is accepted as a normal member of the international community without making any concessions for peace.

By pressing the Argentine soccer team to avoid Israel after the country’s military used snipers to shoot thousands of unarmed Palestinian protesters in recent weeks, the activists pressing for a boycott have forced Israelis to suffer at least some consequences.

“Whatever the real reasons for the cancellation,” Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer observed on Twitter, “the Netanyahu government’s politicization of the match, particularly the ego-trip of vainglorious Sports Minister Regev made it a convenient target and unearned win for the boycotters. BDS is not a real threat to Israel. Hubris is.”

Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, posted an old photo of himself with Messi on Twitter along with the comment, “Another victory for Messi (and the Palestinians), 1:0 from the own-goal of Miri Regev.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Regev’s boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, personally telephoned Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, late Tuesday at her request, to attempt to keep the match from being canceled. Macri, however, informed Netanyahu that he would abide by rules imposed by international soccer’s governing body which prevent governments from interfering in such sporting decisions.

“Netanyahu’s government may be gaining Trump, but it’s losing the world,” Ayman Odeh, who leads a coalition of Palestinian parties in the Knesset, said. “You can’t just keep enjoying games while the rights of millions of Palestinians are being trampled. There’s only one way to win — ending the occupation and a real peace treaty. It’s still possible.”

Update: June 7, 2018, 7:49 a.m. EDT
This story was updated to include information about the nature of online threats reportedly made against Argentine soccer players, which came to light after publication.

Top photo: Lionel Messi, the captain of Argentina’s national soccer team, training on Tuesday in Barcelona ahead of next week’s World Cup in Russia.