A controversy is brewing in the Gaza Strip over the Pepsi Company’s controversial ties to Palestinian sports teams and a stadium that likely doubled as a launching pad for terrorist rockets.
Pepsi’s official Gaza-based bottling company has long been involved in the Palestinian sports scene, sponsoring soccer tournaments, teams, and two stadiums that are also used for official Hamas ceremonies.
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Pepsi’s famous logo has been featured on Palestinian soccer uniforms and is strung throughout Gaza’s two main stadiums. Its Gaza bottling company, the Yazegi Group, declared in July on its Facebook page that Pepsi has been "able to defy the Israeli occupation."
Yazegi, which is run by a Palestinian family, most recently lent Pepsi’s name and logo to a Gaza soccer tournament held earlier this month over the Ramadan holiday.
Dubbed the "Pepsi Cup," the games were held in Gaza City’s Al Yarmouk stadium, which is decorated with Pepsi logos.
Bottling company Yazegi told the Washington Free Beacon that PepsiCo has no problem with its sponsorship of Al Yarmouk and the Beit Lahiya stadium where Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has been seen playing soccer with Pepsi-backed players.
"Recently, Yazegi Group signed an agreement with the Palestinian football association in the West Bank and Gaza (Palestine) to sponsor the Palestine Cup Tournament which called after that ‘PEPSI Cup Tournament,’" a Yazegi spokesperson said.
"The Palestine Cup Tournament is a local event in West Bank and Gaza (Palestine) supported by the Palestinian Football Association in collaboration with the FIFA," the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, according to Yazegi.
"This event is part of our support as a privet [sic] sector to the society; So [sic] Hamas has nothing to do with this event," Yazegi said, adding that it is "an independent institution [and] isn’t following any political part [sic]."
PepsiCo "is well oriented with this event," the statement added.
While Yazegi claims that it holds no political views, the group has written about the so-called "Israeli occupation" on its Facebook page.
In a July 13 post on its Facebook page, Yazegi discussed the Pepsi advertisements displayed at Yarmouk, which was recently rebuilt by Hamas after Israeli airstrikes caused widespread damage.
"With this creative manner from the advertisement department in PepsiCo, the company was able to defy the Israeli occupation by embellishing the field which the occupation had destroyed with beautifully placed Pepsi advertisements on all sides of Al Yarmouk playground," Yazegi wrote, according to a translation of the post.
PepsiCo spokesman Jeff Dahncke said Yazegi is given latitude in its promotional activities.
"PepsiCo does not sponsor any soccer teams in Gaza," Dahncke told the Free Beacon when asked about Hamas’ Haniyeh playing soccer with players sporting a Pepsi logo.
"The photos depict a soccer league involving local community teams, and the local independent bottler producing Pepsi has a relationship with the league that allows for promotional activities to take place at the soccer venues," Dahncke said. "Soccer is a global marketing platform for Pepsi and the brand is associated with the sport around the world."
When asked if Pepsi objected to the use of its logo in a stadium where official Hamas activities are taking place, Dahncke did not respond.
Middle East experts and some on Capitol Hill have questioned Pepsi’s hands-off approach, warning that even the perception of sponsorship and use of the soda company’s logo harms its reputation.
"This is really outrageous," said one senior Senate aide. "Pepsi should take immediate steps to disavow any further connection with Hamas.
"Can you imagine the next Coke-Pepsi challenge?" the source asked. "Hmmm, that one tastes like terror rocket fumes so that must be the Pepsi."
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, said, "It sounds like Pepsi needs to clarify its relationship with the local Gaza bottler."
A senior House GOP aide also expressed alarm.
"The fact that the Pepsi logo is at this facility is clearly concerning," said the aide.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned FIFA earlier this year to be careful in Gaza and "not allow itself and the sport to be used for the dissemination of mendacious propaganda against Israel."
Others pointed out that both the Al Yarmouk and Beit Lahiya stadiums are closely affiliated with Hamas.
Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin was escorted to Al Yarmouk in 1997 for a celebration ceremony after he was released from Israeli prison.
The Beit Lahiya stadium has also been the site of Hamas-run activities.
Haniyeh and other Hamas officials held a celebration at the stadium last year, according to a photo montage on Facebook. Pepsi logos and soccer players in Pepsi uniforms featured prominently into the celebration.
One former Bush administration official familiar with the issue said that any activity in the Gaza Strip cannot be viewed as separate from Hamas.
"At the end of the day," the source said, "Gaza is Hamas, Hamas is Gaza."