Sport faces growing censorship problem over the Israel-Gaza war
Governing bodies are becoming increasingly heavy-handed in their attempts to remain neutral in the conflict
29 Jan 24

Antalyaspor fans watch their team face Trabzonspor in 2021. In the same fixture this month, Sagiv Yehezkel's commemoration of the October 7 attack led to his arrest. Photo: Antalyaspor A.Ş. via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

When Turkish football team Antalyaspor faced Trabzonspor in a Super Lig match earlier this month, few could have predicted the fall-out that would follow off the pitch. Israeli winger Sagiv Jehezkel scored the equaliser for Antalyaspor in the second half, and in celebration he revealed a message written on his wristband that said: “100 days, 7-10”. The words referenced the length of time that Israeli hostages had been held by Hamas since the group launched an attack on Israel on the 7 October, killing an estimated 1,200 people.

In Turkey, the backlash was fierce. Jehezkel was arrested and detained in Antalya on the charge of “incitement to hate”. After being released, he was sacked by Antalyaspor and returned home to Israel, landing in Tel Aviv the next day.

According to local media, Jehezkel has stated that he did not mean to provoke such a storm. He said: “I am not a pro-war person. I want the war to end. That’s why I showed the sign.” Antalyaspor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

He is not the only footballer to lose his club for voicing an opinion on the conflict. When Israel began their retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which has so far reportedly killed more than 26,000 people, Dutch international Anwar El Ghazi posted a message of support for Palestine on his Instagram story. After a back and forth with his club – German side FSV Mainz 05 – El Ghazi made a further statement on social media announcing that he had no regrets over the now-deleted post and reiterating his argument that he stands “for humanity and the oppressed” and against “the killing of all innocent civilians in Palestine and Israel”. Mainz were unhappy with El Ghazi’s stance, calling his position on the conflict “unacceptable”. A few days later, his contract was terminated.

Upon losing his club, El Ghazi posted once more. “Stand for what is right, even if it means standing alone. The loss of my livelihood is nothing when compared to the hell being unleashed on the innocent and vulnerable in Gaza,” he said.

The player is now suing Mainz for wrongful termination of his contract, while the club is making a counter claim as they seek financial compensation to help fund his replacement. The final hearing is set to be held in June.

Mainz told Index they were unable to comment on the incident as legal proceedings are ongoing.

These two cases sum up the uncomfortable relationship sport has with politics and free speech, and how this has been exacerbated by the Israel-Gaza war. Due to the divisive nature of the conflict, sporting bodies are struggling to navigate the line between freedom of expression and the potential to incite hatred and in doing so have fallen into a worrying trend of censorship. 

The reluctance or inability of those involved to comment on the incidents may also show the difficulties people have when talking about this topic, as they can’t, or won’t, speak up due to the potential backlash and further repercussions. This is fairly unsurprising given the experiences of those who have expressed an opinion on the conflict. In another case, footballer Karim Benzema was accused of having “notorious” links to Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by France’s Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin. His crime? Posting a message of support for the inhabitants of Gaza on X (formerly Twitter). Benzema has filed for defamation against Darmanin; his lawyer Hugues Vigier told French news outlet RTL that the claims were “false” and accused the Interior Minister of “sowing division in France”. 

It is not just players who are facing the threat of censorship. Many of football’s national governing bodies, including England’s Premier League and EFL, have also banned supporters from displaying Palestine or Israel flags during games. As a result, there have been a number of accusations levelled at English clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United of censoring fans who display any show of support for the Palestinian cause by removing them from stadiums. 

Other sports have also been caught up in the censorship storm. Former athlete Emilie Gomis, who clinched a silver medal in basketball for France at the London 2012 Olympics, recently stepped down from her role as an ambassador for the Paris 2024 Games after posting an anti-Israel video to her Instagram story. Elsewhere, in South Africa, cricketer David Teeger was stripped of his captaincy of the country’s under-19s side after dedicating an award he won at a Jewish community event to “the state of Israel and every single soldier fighting so that we can live and thrive in the diaspora”, in a decision described as a “sinister” and “discriminatory” by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Another cricketer, Australia’s Usman Khawaja, was charged by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for wearing a black armband during a test match against Pakistan in support of those in Gaza. ICC regulations do not allow players to display “messages of political, religious or racial causes”, and the player had previously been warned by the governing body after wearing shoes with the messages “all lives are equal” and “freedom is a human right” written on them. Khawaja argues that it is not a political statement but a “humanitarian appeal”.

Further debate over the right to free expression in regard to the conflict is inevitable with the growing calls to ban Israel from competing in sporting events. One post on X by The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for “pressure” to be put on sporting bodies to ban Israel from international tournaments and games “until Israel ends its grave violations of international law”. The statement was reposted by the BBC’s Gary Lineker, who later deleted it.

Despite cries to keep politics out of sport, it is not possible to separate the two. Sport does not exist in an apolitical vacuum, and is impacted even on the front lines; the Palestinian Football Association says 88 top-tier athletes have been killed by Israeli forces during their military bombardment, 67 of whom are footballers. Just this month it was reported that the coach of Palestine’s Olympic football team Hani Al-Masdar was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The attempts by governing bodies in sport to prevent athletes and fans from expressing a view on the conflict, while not necessarily malicious, pose a serious risk to free speech. While the cases of Sagiv Jehezkel and Anwar El Ghazi are extreme, they are the product of sport’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to political censorship, which makes having an opinion on the war in Gaza increasingly difficult. For people to feel unable to wade into the issue in fear of backlash is cause for concern in itself. Despite a long history of athletes being involved in political activism, sport still hasn’t found a way to ensure free expression for all is upheld.

By Daisy Ruddock

Daisy Ruddock is editorial assistant at Index on Censorship and the 2023-24 Tim Hetherington Fellow