Israeli athletes face growing scrutiny overseas

JERUSALEM (AP) —Shahar Peer’s stirring run to the semifinals last week at the Dubai Championships was significant in more ways than one: The challenges the Israeli athlete faced off the court were as formidable as the dominating play of Venus Williams on it that ultimately sent her packing.

Because of security concerns, Peer was largely confined to her hotel room and allowed to leave only for her matches at Aviation Club, where she was blanketed by 25 bodyguards and forced to play on a secluded court.

It was a telling reflection of the current state of affairs for Israeli athletes, who increasingly deal with threats, heckling and hooligan violence when they hit the road.

While Israeli politicians, diplomats and military officers are well acquainted with anti-Israel hostility when they go abroad, the trend has struck a raw nerve in the sporting community for violating the sacred principle of keeping politics out of sports.

“Our position is that there needs to be a complete separation between sports and politics,” said Efraim Zinger, secretary general of the Israeli Olympic Committee. “In fact, we need sports as a bridge between people particularly during times of tension.”

The targeting of Israeli athletes was nothing new, with the most notable case being the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.

Zinger said he has witnessed “waves of animosity” against Israel during his 15 years in the job, usually linked to contemporary events. The most recent examples appear to be connected to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last year. The operation, aimed at Palestinian militants, left hundreds of civilians dead.

In the wake of the offensive, an Israeli basketball team was pelted with bottles by Turkish fans and forced to flee the court. An Israel Davis Cup tie was relocated in Sweden and played before an empty stadium because organizers feared for the safety of the players as thousands of protesters gathered outside.

In previous years, an Egyptian footballer assaulted an Israeli player during a league match in Turkey and an Iranian swimmer refused to enter the same pool as an Israeli at the Beijing Olympics. In the 2004 Athens Games, an Iranian judoka refused to face an Israeli.

Zinger vowed that Israel would not be deterred by intimidation and would continue to dispatch its athletes around the world. “Our best answer to this is in the spirit of the Olympic slogan: Faster, higher, stronger,” he said.

No athlete has been affected more than Peer _ world-ranked 22 and Israel’s most prominent individual athlete.

Last month, she faced pro-Palestinian banners at the Australian Open after demonstrators staged three days of small but noisy protests against her in Auckland, New Zealand.

The group ‘Australians for Palestine’ pasted posters around Melbourne that showed Peer, who did her compulsory military service in Israel, in a military uniform while a picture of a distressed child from Gaza was superimposed on her racket. The poster’s slogan read: “Shahar Peer Serves for Israel.”

The unprecedented security arrangements in Dubai came a year after the United Arab Emirates _ which has no diplomatic relations with Israel _ refused to grant Peer an entry visa for the tournament, apparently because of anti-Israeli sentiment in the Gulf state. Her exclusion from an official WTA event sparked an uproar among her fellow players and earned the tournament a $300,000 fine.

In Dubai, her mere attendance this year dominated coverage of the exclusive tournament. Andy Roddick skipped last year’s men’s event because of Peer’s absence, and Venus Williams agreed to defend her title this year only if Peer were allowed to participate.

Peer defeated three seeded players before being stopped in the semis by Williams, who praised the Israeli for overcoming such adversity. In her victory speech a year ago, Williams compared the 2009 exclusion of Peer to the discrimination against the black American player Althea Gibson in the 1950s.

The 22-year-old Peer has sought to distance herself from the drama. Her family in Israel refused to speak about the security and the saga surrounding her, while in interviews in Dubai the soft-spoken Peer repeatedly skirted questions about the issue, stating only that her security entourage included former bodyguards to U.S. presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and that she believed politics and sports should be kept apart.

But her former coach says the matter is nothing new.

Oded Yaakov, a former Israel Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain, said that while on tour with Peer in 2005 in New Zealand he found a threatening letter under their door reading, “Why did you come here, it would be better if you left.”

Yaakov said other Israeli tennis players have also faced threats and he worried that tennis authorities were not doing enough to stop the trend.

“There has been a crossing of a line, an escalation. The players feel a lack of safety, and a lack of confidence, and it definitely affects their game as well,” Yaakov said. “The distance between what is going on and someone causing physical harm to the players is not great.”

The abuse of Peer stands in stark contrast to the warm welcome Omri Casspi has received in the U.S. as the first Israeli in the NBA. The U.S. is home to the world’s second largest Jewish population and has strong ties to Israel. Accordingly, Casspi has been greeted with Israeli flags and wild cheers on every road trip made by his Sacramento Kings. In Sacramento, he has even reportedly been embraced by the local Arab community.

“Since Casspi arrived in Sacramento I’ve changed my opinion a little about Israel,” a Lebanese taxi driver identified as Khaled told Israel’s Yediot Ahronot daily. “He’s a real star _ also a good player and a modest person. Everyone here loves him. Too bad you don’t have more people like this in Israel.”