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UEFA could lift international ban on Israel 'very shortly'

JERUSALEM, Aug 22 (Reuters) - European soccer's governing body UEFA could allow international matches to be played under its jurisdiction in Israel again 'very shortly', the Israel Football Association chairman has said.

Last month UEFA prevented Israeli clubs from hosting matches on home soil because of the war in the north of the country between Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbollah and Israel, which ended with a ceasefire last week.

IFA chairman Iche Menahem told the board on Monday that he had received a 'very encouraging letter' from UEFA Chief Executive Lars-Christer Olsson who said the IFA plea to end the ban on play in Israel would be discussed soon.

Because of the current ban, Maccabi Haifa had to host Tuesday's Champions League third qualifying round tie against Liverpool in Kiev, Ukraine. Three other clubs in the UEFA Cup have also hosted matches at European venues.

The war against Hizbollah, which began on July 12, also forced the delay of the start of the league by a week as clubs said the disruption to life, especially in the north of the country, had hampered pre-season preparations.

Other sports were also affected by the conflict. Last week FIBA Europe, part of international basketball's governing body, banned all European games in Israel. A professional women's tennis tournament set for October was also called off.

International soccer returned to Israel in April 2004 after a 25-month ban due to the worsening security situation in the country. Matches can only be played in the Tel Aviv area.

The Israel national team's first home match in Euro 2008 qualifying is against Andorra on Sept. 6. Israel's other opponents in qualifying group 5 are England, Russia, Croatia, Macedonia and Estonia, whom they face in Tallinn on Sept. 2.

Almost 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed during the 34-day conflict with Hizbollah. The guerrilla group fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel, one of which fell next to the stadium of league champions Maccabi Haifa.