Israeli, Palestinian officials meet

ROME -- Israeli and Palestinian Olympic officials reaffirmed their desire to build stronger ties Wednesday, while failing to make any tangible breakthroughs during a "Sports for Peace" meeting in Italy.

The session was arranged by International Olympic Committee vice president Mario Pescante as a follow-up to initial talks led by IOC president Jacques Rogge in January.

Palestinian Olympic Committee president Jibril Rajoub pushed for Israel to allow Palestinian athletes and coaches more freedom to travel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to make it easier for visiting teams to play soccer exhibitions.

"This is very important for the Palestinian people and I think it should also be important for the Israeli people," Rajoub said. "The Palestinian players and athletes are not able to move inside the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian territories to outside."

Israeli Olympic Committee secretary general Efraim Zinger responded by calling for an end to instances of some athletes refusing to compete against Israelis, and invited the Palestinians to train together for next year's London Games.

Zinger said he has invited the Palestinian Olympic team to one of its high-tech training centers.

"We are ready to host the Palestinian Olympic team and help them prepare for the 2012 London Games," the Israeli said. "We already offered it and I hope that Mr. Rajoub will accept it."

Zinger disputed Rajoub's claims over travel restrictions.

"No, they can travel. It's not a problem," he said. "I'm talking on the sport level. We are ready to offer it, we are ready to execute it, we are ready to do it."

Zinger said he hopes the day will come that both Palestinian and Israeli athletes will "share the same right as all the other athletes from around the world."

"That Palestinian athletes will share free movement to practice, to compete, and Israeli athletes will be able to compete all around the world and be invited to all sport events," he added. "And that we will not see this nonsporting picture of an Israeli athlete waiting in the arena while his opponent from an Arab country, etc., refuses to compete with him."

An Israeli basketball team was pelted with bottles by Turkish fans and forced to flee the court in 2009 and an Iranian swimmer refused to compete against an Israeli at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the 2004 Athens Games, an Iranian judo competitor refused to face an Israeli.

The Palestinians gained IOC recognition in 1993 and a Palestinian team competed in the Olympics for the first time in Atlanta in 1996. Still, only four Palestinian athletes competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, even though the team is entitled to additional help through the IOC's solidarity program.

Rajoub cited two examples of how Israeli restrictions have curtailed sports development. He said the captain of the Palestinian soccer team, Gaza native Ahmed Kashkash, was not allowed to return home for 14 months, then was allowed in and has now been unable to leave again and resume his club career since March 10.

Rajoub, who is also the president of the Palestinian soccer association, said UEFA president Michel Platini sent him a supply of sports equipment that was kept in an Israeli port for 16 months.

"I had to pay $30,000 to release the equipment, and as far as I know even the price of the equipment was not more than $7,000 or $8,000," he said "This is the situation. First the Israelis need to recognize the Palestinian sports entity, then I think everything is open, everything is possible.

"Sport should not know borders," Rajoub added.

The Israeli and Palestinian delegations are due back at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, for more talks May 12.

Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno hosted Wednesday's meeting and awarded both delegations a prize.