Messi, Rajoub — and Firmenich?

Last week, Argentina was supposed to play a football match against Israel. Instead, it ended up playing a political match against Palestine –and lost by a landslide. After being exposed to numerous pressures and threats, led by the Palestinian Football Association, the Argentine team succumbed. The match was canceled.

The most insistent and aggressive exhorts emanated from Jibril Rajoub, the president of the PFA, who said: “We will begin a campaign against the Argentine [Football] Association, and we will personally target Messi, who has tens of millions of fans in Arab states, Islamic states, in Asia, in Africa, and in states that are friends of the Palestinian people… We will target Messi, and will demand that everyone burn their [Messi] shirts and pictures and renounce him.” Some Palestinians burned the Argentine flag. However, what most decidedly tipped the balance towards the refusal to travel to Israel was a small but noisy demonstration of BDS militants in Barcelona. Gathered in front of the place where the Argentine national team was training, they hoisted bloodied team shirts and read by loudspeaker the names of the players followed by the slogan “do not go”. It was after this intimidation that Lionel Messi desisted from playing in Israel.

A few days later, Argentina´s Ministry of Security reported that this demonstration had been called by a Kirchnerist movement named Provincia 25, which is led by Facundo Firmenich, son of Mario Firmenich, both Argentine residents of Barcelona. (Firmenich junior denied any involvement). To the Israelis, those names may not ring a bell, but Argentines recognized them immediately.

Mario Firmenich was the head of the Argentine guerrilla-terrorist group Montoneros, which in the 1970s cultivated close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization. In his book Montoneros, George Chaya offers some highlights of this relationship. In 1976, in a clear terminological emulation of their admired PLO, Montoneros established the Argentina Liberation Organization. The following year, Mario Firmenich and Fernando Vaca Narvaja, another leader of the group, met with Yasser Arafat and Faruq khadumi in Beirut. The magazine Evita Montonera published a photograph of the meeting that shows the smiling Argentines flanking the head of the PLO, who wears his typical military and keffie attire. A few months later Montoneros and the PLO issued a joint statement against Zionism and in favor of Palestinian rights. In 1978, the Argentine guerrillas opened a press office in Lebanon that published a weekly in Arabic. In July 1980, Maariv reported that “dozens of Argentine guerrillas are being trained in PLO camps near Damascus and Beirut.” Rodolfo Galimberti, a prominent member of Montoneros and a key player in the network with the PLO, fought alongside Palestinian militias in Lebanon, was wounded in combat, interned in Damascus and then evacuated to Paris.

Jibril Rajoub must know this story well. After all, he himself was a protagonist of the era. In 1970 he was imprisoned for throwing a grenade against an Israeli army truck. He was released in 1985, in the framework of an agreement between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Ahmed Jibril. In prison, he led hunger strikes and protests, studied Hebrew and -surprisingly enough- along with a cellmate translated into Arabic The Revolt, by Menachem Begin. After his release he was arrested again for his activities during the 1987 intifada and deported to Lebanon. He moved to Tunisia, where he became Arafat’s lieutenant, and in 1994 he returned to the West Bank after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Until 2002 he was in charge of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank, and since 2006 he has been president of the Palestinian Football Association.

He never lost his radicalism. In June 2012, as head of the Palestine Olympic Committee, Rajoub strongly opposed a one-minute silence during the International Olympic Games, in remembrance of the eleven Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinians at the 1972 Munich Olympics. After Palestinian and Israeli kids played in a joint match, hosted by the Peres Center for Peace to promote coexistence, said Rajoub: “Any activity of normalization in sports with the Zionist enemy is a crime against humanity.” And it was Rajoub who sponsored, in 2015, a tennis tournament named after a terrorist who had stabbed two Israelis to death.

The apparent orchestration by Facundo Firmenich of a pro-Palestinian protest in Barcelona in 2018 closes a circle initiated by his father in the 1970s. The descendants of the Montoneros and the descendants of the PLO continue the struggle, not an armed struggle in this case, but a political one. As Rajoub himself stated in June 2013: “We believe that in the current situation of non-violent resistance, the use of sport and football is an effective tool to promote our rights.” That is quite an improvement from his May 1, 2013 statement about Israel, pronounced on the Lebanese television station Al-Mayadeen: “I swear that if we had a nuke, we would have used it this very morning.”

In light of his record, no one should doubt him.


About the Author
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs. He lectures on World Politics at the University of Palermo and is a regular contributor to Infobae and Perfil. He is the author of The Hidden Letter: A History of an Arab-Jewish Family, Triangle of Infamy: Richard Wagner, the Nazis and Israel; Rome and Jerusalem: Vatican policy toward the Jewish state; and Land for Peace, Land for War.