The Giro d'Italia is coming under pressure from various human rights groups to cancel its planned start in Israel on May 4, 2018, over the country's conflict with Palestine.
The race, won in 2017 by Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), is hoping to attract Chris Froome, Mikel Landa and many other top stars to its 101st edition. But the mix of politics and sport is too much for some critics.
The organiser RCS Sport is "whitewashing Israel's military occupation and grave human rights violations" with its planned three-day start, read a statement from the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP). The letter went to the organiser, teams, sponsors, journalists and Pope Francis.
The estimated €10-million deal will see a Grand Tour starting outside of Europe for the first time. The deal provides for three stages, one in Jerusalem and two to the south, which Israel hopes will promote tourism. Human rights groups argue that the Big Start comes at a cost for the Palestinians.
"The signatories stress that holding the Giro d'Italia in Israel will both cover up Israel's military occupation and discrimination against Palestinians and increase Israel's sense of impunity, encouraging continued denial of Palestinians' UN-stipulated rights," read ECCP's letter.
The Palestinian rights organisation said that it is formed of 120 different human rights groups.
The signatories include Renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, prominent jurists former United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Palestinian rights John Dugard and Richard Falk, Italian playwright Moni Ovadia, European Parliament members Eleonora Forenza, Curzio Maltese and Sergio Cofferati, and former vice president of European Parliament Luisa Morgantini.
"Giro d'Italia is working with Israeli company Comtec Group, the organiser the 'Big Start' event, which has activities in illegal Israeli settlements," the letter continued.
"In official race imagery, maps and videos, Giro d'Italia is deceptively portraying East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli military occupation for 50 years, as if it were part of Israel and the unified capital of the State of Israel," read the statement.
"The final stage planned for southern Israel will pass by dozens of Palestinian Bedouin villages Israel refuses to recognise or provide with the most basic of services, including electricity, water, clinics, schools and roads,' one of which Israel has demolished over 100 times."
RCS Sport will unveil the full route of the 2018 edition on November 29 in Milan. After the Israeli start, the race is due to travel to Sicily and north through the country and will return to Rome for a finish at the Vatican City. The trip to Israel, which is investing in its tourism sector, strokes the flames of the historic conflict.
Even the presentation date, November 29, is sensitive as it coincides with the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
The European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) wrote to RCS MediaGroup, teams and sponsors to move the start "to ensure no involvement in Israeli violations of international law and Palestinian human rights."
The Palestinian civil society groups called on Pope Francis to oppose Israel's hosting of the Giro d'Italia, which ends outside of his home in Rome.
The groups' letter urged him not to give blessing or his name to what the letter described as a "cynical attempt by the far-right Israeli government to use your good name in this propaganda effort to cover up its brutal occupation and ongoing construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land."
In a statement, RCS said: "The first reason why the Giro d’Italia is starting in Israel is to continue the process of internationalisation of the race, remembering that this is the 14th time the race will start abroad. Israel represents a good opportunity because it will be the first time a Grand Tour will start outside the borders of Europe.
"Linked to that, the second reason is that the Giro d’Italia is a vehicle to export everything that is Italian to the world, and of course being in Israel gives us great international exposure to talk about Italy."
When it launched the three Israeli stages in September, cycling director Mauro Vegni said, "The reality is that we want it to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion."
This coming weekend, cities across Italy, from Udine to Naples, will host bicycle rides in protest, "to say no to the Giro d'Italia in Israel."
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