RAMALLAH, West Bank – International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge expressed concern Tuesday over "obstacles" facing Palestinian athletes and urged Israel to grant them free movement regardless of politics.
Palestinian officials say Israel routinely hinders the movement of Palestinian athletes, particularly those from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel denies the accusations.
Making his first trip to the West Bank, Rogge said there is a "unanimous voice" in the sporting world for governments to allow athletes to travel freely.
"The International Olympic Committee is a sport, not a political or sovereign organization," he said. "I will try to persuade the people who we speak to ... so we will focus our efforts on removing the obstacles."
Rogge was meeting with Palestinian leaders and watching an exhibition soccer match in the West Bank on Tuesday before heading to Israel on Wednesday for talks with President Shimon Peres and other dignitaries.
His four-day visit to the region also included a stop in Jordan.
Bilal Abualarish, spokesman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee, said the soccer team's 30 players live in various countries and struggle to enter the West Bank for training or games. The committee has a hard time planning training schedules because they don't know whether players will arrive.
The captain of the Palestinian team, Ahmed Kashkash, was unable to play at Tuesday's match because Israeli officials would not allow the Gaza native to enter the West Bank from neighboring Jordan, he said.
Guy Inbar, a defense ministry spokesman, said Israel does not target athletes specifically, but sometimes raises concerns about individuals. An official from the Shin Bet security agency, speaking on condition of anonymity because of agency regulations, said Israel had approved special travel permits for Palestinian soccer players in recent weeks.
The Palestinians gained IOC recognition in 1993, after the Palestine Liberation Organization signed an interim peace accord with Israel. A Palestinian team competed in the Olympics for the first time at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, said the Palestinians were also encountering difficulties building stadiums and importing sporting goods because of Israeli restrictions.
The Israel Olympic Committee says it would be pleased to help their Palestinian counterparts overcome any bureaucratic hurdles, but said the Palestinians have not reached out to them.
Palestinian Olympic officials say about 70 percent of athletes work in various Palestinian security services. Officials say they are regarded with suspicion by Israeli authorities and often face travel restrictions.
Rajoub is a former West Bank security commander.