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Palestinian soccer chief wants FIFA sanctions if Israel fails to lifts travel restrictions

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RAMALLAH, Palestine - The head of Palestinian football said Monday he will call for sanctions against the Israel Football Association at the annual FIFA Congress next month unless Israel lifts travel restrictions on some of his players and foreign visitors.

Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestine Football Association, called Israel the "bully of the neighbourhood," adding that "Palestinians believe bullying should not be accepted by FIFA."

Rajoub spoke in a joint news conference with visiting FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is to raise the Palestinian complaints Tuesday in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blatter said he hopes a solution can be found ahead of the Congress, the top legislative arm of FIFA, the governing body of world football with 209 member associations.

"I think at the Congress we should try to be in the sporting spirit and not in the spirit of punishment," Blatter said. The Congress will be held June 10-11 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, just before the start of the World Cup.

An Israeli government official and a spokeswoman for the Israel Football Association declined comment Monday, saying they did not want to speak ahead of the Blatter-Netanyahu meeting.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — areas the Palestinians want for a state — in the 1967 war. Over the years, Israel has imposed travel restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for Palestinians to move between or in and out of those territories.

Israel cites concerns about possible attacks by Palestinian militants as the main reason for restrictions on movement. Critics say those restrictions often amount to collective punishment, particularly in Gaza, where borders have been virtually sealed by Israel and Egypt in response to a takeover there by the Islamic militant Hamas.

Rajoub said Monday that Gaza players are particularly affected by restrictions on movement, but that there are also delays in getting Israeli entry permits for foreign delegations and visitors.

"We hope and pray that your mission will succeed," Rajoub said of Blatter's efforts.

Otherwise, the Palestine Football Association "will have no other option but to ask the FIFA Congress to ask for sanctions against the Israeli Football Association," he said.

Rajoub did not specify what kind of sanctions he would seek, but in the past has said Israel should be suspended from FIFA.

Earlier Monday, Blatter told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that "we shall find a solution" but that "it will not be so easy to deal on the other side," meaning Israel. Blatter pledged his support, telling a beaming Abbas that "your people but also your football association is not alone in the world."

The FIFA chief said he is a "self-declared ambassador of the Palestine people."

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Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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