How international performers are unwittingly brought to Israeli settlements

A Honda-sponsored racing event is moved from a settlement into Israel proper. Organizers admit they didn’t inform the headliner that it was in occupied territory, and the racer says he wouldn’t have participated if he had known.

Illustrative photo of Italian racer Lucio Cecchinello. (LCR Honda MotoGP Team/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Illustrative photo of Italian racer Lucio Cecchinello. (LCR Honda MotoGP Team/CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the past several weeks, the Israeli Motorsports Federation and Honda Israel have been promoting an event featuring a rising international motorcycle racing star and a legendary motorcycle racing team. The catch? The racetrack is located deep inside the occupied West Bank — in an Israeli settlement called Petza’el. Joe Roberts, the main attraction, says he was never told about its exact location.

The event, sponsored by Honda Israel, the Israeli Motorsports Federation (IMSF), and the Ministry of Culture and Sports, was scheduled to take place on February 23-24 on a brand new, state-of-the-art racetrack in the Jordan Valley, an area of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Roberts, 20, one of the rising starts of the MOTOGP world, was named the 2015 MotoAmerica Superstock 600 Champion, and is expected race full-time in the 2018 FIM Moto2 World Championship. The event is also billed to include managers of the LCR Honda team, a legendary motorcycle team founded in 1996 by Italian rider Lucio Cecchinello.

In a series of written correspondence, Roberts told +972 Magazine that the itinerary the Israeli Motorsports Federation sent him made no mention of the West Bank. He said he was explicitly told the race was to be held in Israel.

“I wasn’t given a lot of details in the beginning, other than that the track was in Israel,” Roberts said. “I would not have attended the event had it been in the West Bank.”

Ein Al-Hilweh, Jordan Valley, November 16, 2017. (Keren Manor/
The Palestinian hamlet of Ein Al-Hilweh, located in the Jordan Valley, November 16, 2017. (Keren Manor/

Reached by phone last week, Omer Shoshany, CEO of the Israeli Motorsports Federation, insisted that his organization is only interested in promoting motor sports in Israel. Asked whether he considered Petza’el — the settlement with the race track — part of the State of Israel, he responded that any place “where Israel has sovereignty” is considered part of the Israel.

The State of Israel does not consider the West Bank to be sovereign territory, however, and rules it under military law consistent with the international conventions governing occupied territories. The overwhelming majority of the world considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal.

Shoshany said he did not feel the need to specify the exact location of the track when inviting Roberts. Asked whether he would have mentioned the track’s location had it been in a more controversial area of the occupied territories, such as Hebron, he said no. When it comes to sports, he said, there is no difference between a settlement in occupied territory, like Petza’el, and Tel Aviv.

On Saturday, Roberts’ agent, Eitan Butbul, of the APEX Motorsport Agency, affirmed that Joe was invited as a guest of Honda “purely to promote the sport of racing in Israel,” would “not under any circumstances be attending any events at the track” (Petza’el), and that he has “been very clear about his interests and intentions for this visit.”

Earlier Saturday, following several interviews researching this article, and another article published on Electronic Intifada, the Israel Motorsports Federation notified Roberts and his agent that it had decided to change the location of the event from the settlement of Petza’el to Arad, a city inside Israel proper.

The Hebrew-language promotional graphic listing the racing event at 'Petzael, Jordan Valley'
The Hebrew-language promotional graphic listing the racing event at ‘Petzael track, Jordan Valley.’

Reached again by phone on Sunday, the IMSF chief claimed that the decision to change venues stemmed from the fact that the Petza’el track was flooded by rain over the weekend — not anything to do with Roberts discovering the event was scheduled to take place in a settlement.

Shoshany added that the event was actually supposed to take place in Arad, and that “Petza’el was chosen as a replacement because the track in Arad had not yet received the proper operating permits.”

Minutes after our phone conversation, the Israel Motorsports Federation’s official Facebook page and the event’s registration web page changed the details of the event to include its new location. At the time of publication, the Honda Israel web page for the event still listed Petza’el as the venue.

Neither Honda Israel nor Honda international responded to requests for comment.

In February 2017, +972 Magazine first reported that the Petza’el track, still in its infant stages at the time, had been built partially — and therefore illegally, according to the IDF — inside a military live-fire zone. The Israeli army regularly uses such designations, which cover nearly one-third of the occupied West Bank, and which have been used as a mechanism for displacing the Palestinian communities that live inside their boundaries.

An aerial photograph of the rallycross track built in Firing Zone 904 in the West Bank. The red line marks the approximate area of the fence surrounding the track. (Dror Etkes)
An aerial photograph of the racetrack built inside an IDF Firing Zone in the West Bank. The red line marks the approximate area of the fence surrounding the track. (Dror Etkes)

The IDF at the time said it had issued stop-work orders for the track’s construction, yet its route appears to not have changed and construction continued. Reached last week, a spokesperson for the IDF’s Civil Administration, the military government in the West Bank, told +972 Magazine that the track’s owners told them that the course had been moved outside the firing zone. Asked whether the army had actually verified if the track was moved, the spokesperson said no.

The settler regional council that is responsible for Petza’el is currently working to advance a development plan to turn the area around the track into a tourist destination, complete with a shopping center and a hotel.