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The Giro d’Italia, the prestigious cycling race, is kicking off on May 4, 2018 in Jerusalem. The Giro d’Italia is second only to the Tour de France in terms of popularity, and is considered the toughest cycling race in the world, as it includes harder mountain stages than its French counterpart.

This is the first time the race is being held outside of Europe. Starting the race from the Holy Land is, however, causing controversy for other reasons. Pro-Palestinian groups have been particularly vocal in their criticism, with the BDS movement defining the choice to start the Giro d’Italia from Israel as “sports-washing of Israel’s occupation and apartheid.” The choice to portray Jerusalem as unified despite its contested status has been particularly controversial. Indeed, Israel is openly using the event as part of its public diplomacy efforts. The decision to start the Giro d’Italia in Jerusalem must, as such, be understood as part of the struggle over normalization of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

The first three days of this year’s Giro d’Italia will take place in Israel, before ‘going back home’ to Sicily. This first stage of the race will be dedicated to Italian racer Gino Bartali, a legendary athlete from Italy’s golden years of cycling in the 1930s and 40s. Bartali is credited with saving hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi occupation, and, in 2013, was awarded the honorific title “Righteous among the Nations,” which Israel bestows upon gentiles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.

Instead of honoring Bartali’s memory, the decision to start the race in Jerusalem appears to be a flagrant attempt to normalize Israel’s occupation of the city. Israel currently occupies both West (since 1948) and East (since 1967, annexed in 1981) Jerusalem. While most countries have accepted Israel’s claims of sovereignty over West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem is still considered occupied Palestinian territory by nearly all members of the international community.

Fifty years after its military victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has not succeeded in legitimizing its control over land it seized then, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Clearly, however, this has not been for lack of trying. Tel Aviv has consistently attempted to alter realities on the ground with its aggressive illegal settlement policy. It has engaged in brutal military campaigns, in the Gaza Strip especially, and subjected Palestinians, including children, to the daily abuses of occupation.

Israel has also worked to change international perceptions about its occupation. This process of ‘normalization’ is characterized by efforts to depict its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as necessary and unexceptional. In the last decade, Israel has been forced to up its efforts in this regard, partially in response to new forms of Palestinian political mobilization aimed at challenging the legitimacy and viability of the occupation.

Chief among these challenges has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which has sought to pressure Israel into recognizing Palestinian human rights and ending the occupation. The boycott has effectively placed Israel’s occupation at the center of the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly challenging Israel’s normalization strategy. The Israeli response has been robust to say the least, and in some cases has bordered on hysteria. In June 2015, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared “war” on BDS. Israel’s continuous attempts to contain the BDS movement included, for example, the criminalization of BDS activism and the banning of twenty international organizations that have endorsed the boycott.

Having the Giro d’Italia start from Jerusalem represents a real boost for Israeli attempts to distract attention from its human rights abuses and oppressive tactics toward the Palestinian population. For an undisclosed fee (thought to be around 10 Million Euros or over 12 Million USD) the Israeli government can claim the honor of being the first non-European country to host the start of the prestigious cycling race. In deciding to pony up this steep fee, Israel’s goals are clear: it hopes the race will promote an image of itself that is different and distant from the realities of its occupation.

The Giro d’Italia is clearly part of a concerted attempt to present Israel as what Sylvan Adams – the Canadian-Israeli businessman behind the operation – describes as a “diverse, free, pluralistic and fiercely democratic society.” According to this narrative, Israel is no longer an occupying power and the conflict (if it ever existed) is now irrelevant. In this distorted reality, the Palestinians and their struggle have no place.

Israeli Minister of Tourism, Yariv Levin, has also been clear about the role the Giro has in promoting Israel as a safe and interesting holiday destination. On September 18, 2017, the day that the start of the race from Israel was announced, the minister declared: “As part of this revolution in marketing Israel as a destination for leisure and tourism, we are bringing the Giro d’Italia to our country – a spectacular race which will showcase Israel’s amazing landscape to hundreds of millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries across the world.”

As for the event’s organizer, RCS Media Group, it claims this is about “sport not politics.” Clearly, the Italian group has a lot of reasons (about 9 million Euros of them) to take this position. The unveiling of the race’s itinerary on November 29, 2017, however, made it very clear the Israeli government takes the opposite perspective. After consultation with the Italian foreign ministry, RCS media listed the Giro’s starting point as Western Jerusalem. Yet, the use of the internationally recognized wording proved too much for the Israeli government, which vehemently protested and threatened to suspend the partnership. RCS immediately issued an apology and changed the listing to “Jerusalem,” without even attempting to defend its original wording.

The saga of the Giro d’Italia clearly shows the importance of the struggle over representations of everyday reality in Israel and Palestine. Israel’s attempt to depict the occupation as not only a fait accompli, but also as something normal, has found a willing partner in RCS. Stating that ‘this is about sport and not politics’ is, however, quite simply incorrect. Starting the Giro from Jerusalem is a political choice (albeit one motivated by economic reason) and represents a clear endorsement of Israel’s attempts to normalize its illegal occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Giro is an undeniable triumph for the Israeli government. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect those opposed to the occupation will apply as much pressure as possible in the next few months to prevent it from becoming another step towards normalizing Israel’s decades-long occupation.

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