Israeli footballer Sagiv Yehezkel was deported from Turkey this week after being detained by police and fired by Super Lig club Antalyaspor for expressing support during a soccer match for more than 100 hostages kidnapped by Hamas during its October 7 attack on Israel.
A second Israeli player, 23-year-old Eden Kartsev, awaits a similar fate after his club, Istanbul Bashakshehir, said it was investigating him for “violating the sensibilities of the country” by reposting on X, formerly known as Twitter, an image with the hashtag “BringThemHomeNow.”
Assuming Mr. Kartsev will also be deported, Ramzi Safuri, a Palestinian Israeli, who plays for Antalyaspor alongside 28-year-old Mr. Yehezkel, will be the last Israeli footballer standing in Turkey.
Bashkakshehir maintains close ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), staunch Hamas supporters. Mr. Erdogan has described Hamas as a “liberation group.”
The hashtag is the slogan of a movement, driven by the hostages’ families, demanding that Israel prioritise the release of the hostages above pursuit of the Gaza war.
Israel’s more than three-month-long devasting campaign against Gaza has so far failed to militarily free the hostages. In November, Israel achieved the release of more than 100 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons during a ceasefire mediated by Qatar.
A senior US official, Brett McGurk, visited Qatar in recent days for “very serious and intensive discussions” on a possible new prisoner exchange deal, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Qatar and France brokered a deal for the exchange of medicine for the hostages in return for the increased entry into Gaza of medical supplies and humanitarian aid.
Turkey’s backing of Hamas is likely one reason why it, unlike Qatar and Egypt, the two other Middle Eastern states with links to the group, has not played a role in efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza war and the freeing of hostages.
Hamas released a video on Monday that appeared to show the dead bodies of two hostages after warning Israel they might be killed if it did not stop its bombardment of Gaza. An Israeli military spokesman denied the hostages were killed in air strikes targeting Hamas.
Turkey’s disciplinary action against the Israeli players raises troubling questions.
It suggests Turkey cares about Gaza’s human carnage caused by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of the Strip but not about the lives of innocent Israelis.
To be fair, a “substantial” number of the remaining hostages are Israeli military personnel. Even so, Hamas videos released since the November exchange have featured mostly women and elderly captives.
By disciplining the Israeli players on political grounds rather than by invoking world soccer body FIFA’s banning of political expressions on the pitch, Turkey punctured one more hole in international sports associations’ fiction that sports and politics are separate rather than Siamese twins inseparably joined at the hip.
Ironically, the Turkish Football Federation last month cancelled a Super Lig final between clubs Galatasaray and Fenerbahce scheduled to be played in Riyadh after Saudi authorities banned players from wearing jerseys portraying Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire.
The disciplinary actions touch on one more major casualty of the Gaza war beyond the shocking 24,000 Gazan death toll, including 55 footballers; the hostages; and the mass Israeli arrests of West Bank Palestinians: freedom of expression.
Irrespective of one’s attitude towards the Gaza war, disciplining the Israeli players amounts to curtailing their freedom of expression.
That is no surprise. Turkey is the fourth most prolific jailer of journalists globally behind Iran, China and Myanmar.
Even so, the disciplinary measures are part of a global crackdown stretching from Israel and the United States into Europe on freedom of speech accelerated by the Gaza war but shaped long before Hamas’ October 7 attack by Israel and its supporters seeking to label criticism of the Jewish state as anti-Semitism.
Israel and pro-Israel groups have skillfully exploited a blurring of the lines between anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic expression to try to squash criticism of Israel while ignoring, if not encouraging blatant racist and dehumanizing anti-Palestinian language.
Increasingly, the upshot is a clampdown on free speech in democracies in which calls for a Gaza ceasefire and an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel are denounced as antisemitism.
Public outrage in Europe has defeated attempts in countries like France, Germany, and Austria to ban pro-Palestinian protests, the waving of Palestinian flags, and/or the wearing of a keffiyeh, the checkered black-and-white scarf that symbolizes Palestinian nationalism.
Similarly, Israeli far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir failed to ban anti-war protests organized by a minority of Israelis opposed to the assault on Gaza.
The war has sparked debates in multiple democracies on the right to peaceful protest, with the media and human rights organizations weighing-in on the repercussions of silencing war critics.
In the United States, the clampdown has involved censorship, putting college campuses at the center of a debate on free speech and what constitutes anti-Semitism.
In December, a US House of Representatives resolution, adopted by a wide margin, equated anti-Zionism to antisemitism.
Thirty-seven of the 50 US states have passed legislation banning state offices from investing in or doing business with companies that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in what amounts to curtailing freedom of choice. Various states have incorporated the ban in their contracts.
Germany’s parliament passed a resolution in 2019 denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic.
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS campaigns for boycotting Israeli products imported from occupied Palestinian lands and embargoing and divesting from companies doing business in occupied territory.
To be sure antisemitism is on the rise as is anti-Muslim sentiment since October 7.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League reported antisemitic incidents had risen by 388% in the first two weeks of the war, compared with the same period last year.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said requests for help and reports of anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim bias increased by 172% in the first two months of the war.
In Israel, Meir Baruchin, a history and civics teacher, was fired from his job, investigated for intent to commit treason, and put in solitary confinement in Jerusalem’s notorious Russian Compound prison for Facebook posts mourning Gaza civilians killed, criticizing the Israeli military, and warning against wars of revenge.
Israeli rights groups and lawyers say a crackdown on speech has resulted in scores being fired from their jobs, disciplined or expelled from their universities, and even arrested, often for posts on social media in support of Palestinians or critical of Israel’s operations in Gaza.
“Make no mistake: Baruchin was used as a political tool to send a political message. The motive for his arrest was deterrence – silencing any criticism or any hint of protest against Israeli policy,” Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial.