Sammy Ofer Stadium, September 2014, Maccabi Haifa v Bnei Sakhnin

Haifa, northern Israel, summer 2014. The 30,000-seater Sammy Ofer stadium, light years ahead of any other venue in Israel, was full for its opening game. The majority of those there were emotional Maccabi Haifa fans, draped in green flags and banners, but one corner was populated with the travelling fans of Bnei Sakhnin, a team from a nearby Arab town.

Sakhnin fans had one huge banner: a drawing of a barefoot 10-year-old child in ragged clothes with his hand clasped behind his back – Handala, the creation of the Palestinian caricaturist Naji Al-Ali, which symbolises the resistance of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes to the state of Israel in 1948. The writing on the banner said “Sakhnin el Arab” – Arab Sakhnin. It was an apt reminder to the Israeli football fans that the stadium may be ’European’ (the overused adjective when it comes to describe quality) but Israeli football is still rooted deep in the Middle East. 

“[El Ali] was assassinated by the Israelis because of a drawing. A drawing!”’ says Mahmud Galia, a journalist from Sakhnin. According to credible Israeli sources, the artist was actually murdered in London in 1987 by a Palestinian hit squad after he insulted Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO at the time. Mossad was well aware of the plot but did nothing to stop it.

This is Israel, where life revolves around the Arab-Israeli conflict and everyone has a narrative to follow. Football is not exempt and Bnei Sakhnin tells that story better than any other team.

Ihud Bnei Sakhnin in Hebrew or Ittihad Abna Sakhnin in Arabic (Sons of Sakhnin United) began as a local team of a small town but are now a team that represents the minority in Israel. With a squad composed mainly of Arab-Israeli players, Sakhnin has become kul al Arab – an all-Arab team in the top league. The club used to nurture up-and-coming players on loan from Maccabi Haifa and had a mix of Jewish and Arab players, but now Jewish players hesitate to sign for them. The team draws fans from all over Israel’s Arab communities. While most Arab-Israeli institutions are careful not to overstate their Palestinian identity, Sakhnin sometimes can’t resist it. 

Before a league match in October 2014, club officials handed framed honorary diplomas to people who had helped the team and raised money for it. Among the recipients was Azmi Bishara, but he wasn’t there. He was a prominent Arab member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but fled Israel when he was suspected of helping Hezbollah, the Shi’a Islamist militant group, in its conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006, a claim he has always denied. Today Bishara is an advisor to the crown prince of Qatar and for many Israelis a symbol of the Arab enemy within the state. When Sakhnin chose to honour him for his fundraising work in Qatar, it shook Israeli football and public mayhem ensued.

Fans, media and politicians turned against the club that used to be the darling of Israeli sport. “I don’t understand what the fuss is about,” said the Sakhnin chairman Muhammad Abu Yunas. “Dr Bishara helped raise money for Bnei Sakhnin while the establishment didn’t give us anything, so why shouldn’t we look for money from abroad? What’s wrong with that?”

“A fine or games behind closed doors is not a sufficient punishment for the vile act of Bnei Sakhnin,” said Limor Livnat, the sports minister. “Only an expulsion from the league will make clear to the innocence-pleading heads of the team the severity of their act in organising a ceremony in honour of someone suspected of treason and espionage for one of Israel’s worst enemies.” 

In Gaza, the Hamas spokesperson wrote, “I wish to congratulate Ittihad Abna Sakhnin which has stood up and honoured Dr Azmi Bishara despite all threats.”

After the conflict against Hamas in the summer of 2014, a continuation of 15 years of bloodshed following the collapse of the peace process in 2000, Israel is a place short of hope. Many Israelis believe there is no solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and that sporadic wars will happen every few years. The rise of Isis and atrocities on Israel’s doorstep in Syria has done little to improve the already fragile sense of security.

In Israel itself, relationships between the Jewish majority and the 20% Arab minority (not including Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation) are fast eroding. Systematic discrimination, mainly around housing and land issues, is a constant source of resentment among the Arab-Israelis. In the 2015 general election, the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu based his campaign on fear of and hatred towards the Palestinians and the Arab world. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organisations are bussing them out,” was his shocking rallying call on polling day. It was effective as the fear of a Labour government backed by an Arab party drove many Israelis to vote for Netanyahu. 

It leaves the Arab population between a rock and a hard place. They are citizens of Israel but part of the Palestinian people and the greater Arab world. Some of them (but fewer and fewer) see themselves as Israelis, others as Arab-Israelis and many others as Palestinians. [In this article I will use the term Arab-Israelis as a neutral description of citizenship and ethnicity.] For the Jewish majority they are a potential enemy while for Palestinians outside Israel they are Israelified Arabs. With hatred and racism now out in the open, the country sometimes resembles Yugoslavia just before it fell apart. 

The Israeli sociologist Dr Tamir Sorek of Florida University looked into the subject in his book Arab Soccer in a Jewish State – the Integrative Enclave. His research took place around the turn of the millennium and his findings are illuminating. “There’s a power struggle around the club, and while the board wants to keep the definition of an Israeli team there is a significant group of fans who want to bring in elements which were not seen until 2008,” he wrote. “There is an inclination to emphasise Palestinians’ foundations and identity. In the unwritten code in Israel, it is seen as defiance when they call themselves Palestinians. For them the success of the team allows them to imagine integration in the Israeli society from a position of power. Emphasising the Arabness is not disconnected from the desire to be valued as citizens.” 

The town of Sakhnin sits in Galilee, a region of natural beauty and historical importance. In this small hilly piece of land, Jesus is said to have performed miracles, Saladin beat the crusaders in the Battle of the Horns of Hattin and the Israeli Army fought and won major battles. However, there is a feeling that one site to the south of Sakhnin casts a shadow over the land: Har Megiddo (Mount Megiddo) – Armageddon. It is a time of despair and you don’t have to look for long to find people who think that World War III will start from here. Some messianic Jews, Islamists and evangelical Christians even want the war to erupt so their God will smite their enemies once and for all. 

In the meantime, Bnei Sakhnin are becoming an important symbol of how complicated life in Israel can be. The formation of the club in 1992 now looks almost prophetic. In the 2015 general election, a united Arab party ran for the Knesset for the first time. Communists, Islamists, secular Arabs and a token Jew shared one political front. Bnei Sakhnin led the way on the football front. In 1992, Maccabi and Hapoel Sakhnin rose above years of rivalry and formed one united team. Instead of engaging in petty local politics and conflicts along the lines of the town’s clans, Bnei Sakhnin took a different route. It was no coincidence it happened in Sakhnin. “There is something proud about Sakhnin,” says Galia. “Land Day started here, it’s the first town to embrace the Arabs of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” 

Sakhnin have been a bastion of struggle over the years. “We have given up many martyrs,” Nidal, a political activist, is quoted as saying in Sorek’s book, “whether it was in October 2000, in 1976 or 1948. Our entire history is a history of people who love their land, who always identify with the Palestinian people.” Nidal referred to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 that brought the destruction of Palestinian life and two major events that followed. In 1976 a protest rose after the government announced its intention to confiscate lands from Sakhnin and neighbouring villages. A general strike and demonstrations were called and in violent clashes with the border police, six people were killed, three of them from Sakhnin. That day, March 30, was declared Land Day, an annual day of memorial and protest by the Arab minority in Israel. “By blood, by spirit, we will redeem you, oh Galilee,” has been the rallying call ever since.

Sakhnin’s place in the centre of the narrative of struggle was cemented in October 2000 when 13 Arab demonstrators in Israel were killed by the police during the first few days of the second Intifada. Two of the victims were from Sakhnin. Even in the bloody history of the conflict the events of October 2000 had a longstanding impact. Arab-Israelis took them as a proof of how fragile their human rights were, while mainstream Israelis saw it as treason. Both views added to Sakhnin’s status as the Village of Martyrs. 

The new team climbed the leagues steadily and after only 11 years made it to the top flight, only the second Arab-Israeli team to do so. Hapoel Tayibe had been the first, gaining promotion to the top tier in 1996. Tayibe suffered immediate relegation, financial collapse and vanished into the nether regions of Israeli football. The plan was to become a leading Arab-Israeli team with a squad based on Arab players and fans from across the Arab community in Israel. Tayibe never achieved the success on the pitch necessary to make that possible.

That year I came up with a number of scenarios of how Hapoel Tayibe’s first season in the top league would go. One was immediate relegation and another the team becoming kul al Arab. In a way, both came true. Tayibe failed and never got beyond the status of a local team as it was too early for such plans. There weren’t enough top-quality Arab players, the team didn’t have the financial muscle to compete while Arab players were, at the time, deemed inferior to Jewish players at Arab clubs. 

These processes later came to fruition with Sakhnin. The team, vitally, avoided relegation, which turned out to be a tipping-point. It wasn’t pretty, though. Under the manager Eyal Lahman, Sakhnin played tough, aggressive and sometimes brutal football. Even by English standards it was harsh, and when the team played against Newcastle United in the Uefa Cup in 2005 the tackles were followed by winces, gasps of astonishment and then rage by the Newcastle fans at St James’ Park. Still, Sakhnin became part of the league. Since then the team has been relegated once but bounced back immediately. 

A greater achievement was reaching the Cup final in 2004, the first Arab team to do so. In a packed National Stadium near Tel Aviv they beat Hapoel Haifa 4-1. “It was an unforgettable night,” says Galia. “My father is still celebrating in his grave.” Fans from all over the country made the pilgrimage to Sakhnin that night and the Israeli media celebrated with them. “Sakhteyn [an Arabic word used by Hebrew speakers meaning ‘well done’) Sakhnin,” was the headline in one tabloid. “An achievement which will open doors” and “This is how one creates coexistence,” said others.

Yedioth Ahronoth, the biggest paper at the time, went with “Mabruk [‘congratulations’ in Arabic, a word also used in Hebrew]: a historic achievement for the Arabs of Israel.”

Zohar Bahalul, a well-known Arab journalist and now newly elected member of the Knesset, famous for his over-the-top Hebrew, wrote, “No more the same simplistic, supercilious and arrogant view of him [the Arab]. Perhaps from today onwards the attitude will be more respectful, more human and decent. There is hope. A new chapter in the cultural conflict between Arab and Jewish citizens of the state was written yesterday. A chapter of reconciliation. A sport has succeeded where others, for so many years have failed. The educational system in Israel never learned to inculcate the values of coexistence… Behold! Sport overcame the historic obstacle, disposed of the stereotypes, sowed pride and new hope in the Arab population.”

Limor Livnat, the Minister of Education, Culture and Sport described the achievement as a “championship for a team from the Arab sector – a certificate of honour for Israeli society.” The team of Arabs, Jews and Christians was hailed as a groundbreaker.

The website of Beitar Jerusalem’s Ultras was shut down for 24 hours as a gesture of mourning.

The reactions were genuine. Israeli football, for all its faults, was far more open than most public spheres for Arab-Israelis. The best Arab players found their way to the top teams (apart from Beitar Jerusalem, where the racist fans won’t allow it) and to the national team. During a 2006 World Cup qualifying match against Ireland, Abbas Sawan, Sakhnin’s cup-winning captain and probably their finest ever player, scored a wonderful last-minute equaliser. Among the celebrating fans was Galia. “I was always against Israel’s national team but with that game I was happy,” he said. “Not for the team but for Sawan. We are an inseparable part of this country and we do have influence. Some fans put on an Israeli scarf on me and I went home with it. I woke up the next morning, saw it, and thought, ‘Oh dear, what have I done?’”

Sorek explains in his book: “Soccer provides many Arab men with a secure sphere of competitive masculinity and identification with flags and emblems and at the same time it avoids both Palestinian and Israeli national narratives … The soccer sphere is constructed to serve as an enclave of integration, in which the Palestinian citizens of Israel attempt to suspend their national identification as Palestinians and in doing so maintain inwardly and outwardly circumscribed display – in time and place – of civic partnership with the Jewish majority.”

For many years that was the model. Arab national symbols were kept away from the football stadiums; the chairmen of the teams spoke frequently about coexistence and the fans chanted, cursed and sang in Hebrew, even in games between two Arab teams. In the Arab press the tone was often far more nationalistic, but the football enclave was flourishing. The state and the FA were happy to show the world that Israel is a fair society and the Arab-Israelis enjoyed success and recognition. Walid Badir, a long-serving Arab player in the national team (who played at Wimbledon for one season) was the captain of Hapoel Tel Aviv, who won the 2010 Championship in the last minute of the season against Beitar in Jerusalem. The irony wasn’t lost. 

So, how has Israeli football changed from an example of integration to another arena for the conflict to be played out upon? Sorek explains, “The significance of people who are afraid to challenge the Jewish public’s sensitivities is fading. The events of October 2000 demonstrated the fragility of the Arab’s civil rights. The events contributed to the trend that shows of protest that were once deemed a danger to the relationship with the Jews are now more common because the Arab citizens feel they have less to lose. Because of football’s historical importance as a place of integration, it took more time for those trends to filter through. The war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 that was portrayed in the Arab media as a major defeat for Israel caused satisfaction among the Arab citizens of Israel and led to more defying ways of protest. 

“Since the assassination of the prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and, especially, since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, the gradual extension of Palestinian citizenship rights in Israel has ended and even been reversed, a policy expressed in a wave of discriminatory legislation against Palestinian citizens. This wave, along with frustration over the failed emancipatory process of the 1990s, has pushed many Palestinians in Israel to reconsider their integrative aspirations. In addition, the widespread feeling among Palestinians that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached an impasse has also contributed to an imagining of alternative political solutions in which Israeli citizenship would be replaced with the citizenship of a future bi-national, non-national, or Islamic state.”

And there’s Beitar Jerusalem. Once the team of the people and now a club under the spell of a proudly racist nationalistic Ultras organisation called La Familia1. The club that had the potential to become Israel’s most popular turned into a nasty organisation in which no Arabs or Muslims can play.’Beitar Jerusalem, forever pure’ read a banner after two Chechen players were signed. The transfers resulted in games in front of empty stands and the club offices being burned down. The fascists won that round. Things got so bad that many fans found it unbearable and formed ‘a new club, Beitarin Jerusalem, based on’ their love of the old Beitar and humanistic values. 

Over the years, Beitar v Sakhnin has become the Israeli clásico, the Terra Santa’s derby of hate. Both teams have fallen from their previous state of grace but the game has become one of the focal points of the season. It usually comes a few days before or after a terror atrocity, a military offensive or election (just by probability) to add more heat to the encounter. 

The match in November 2014 was probably the most policed match ever in Israel. Around 900 policemen and stewards tried to control fewer than 5000 fans (800 of them supporting Beitar) and 22 players, to no avail. The match in Sakhnin took place a few months after a military conflict in Gaza and only a few days after a terror attack in a Jerusalem synagogue in which five Israelis were murdered. Tension in Jerusalem had been brewing for months. The city of peace – at least that’s its folk etymology – turned into the city of fear where no one, Jew or Arab, knew if they’d make it home in the evening. Every local skirmish had the potential to turn into a regional war. 

At the Doha Stadium, a gallery of Arab politicians took their places while right-wing extremists stood among the Beitar fans. Never before had a top-flight match had so many Palestinian flags on display (an act illegal until 1992) while Beitar fans brought Israeli flags and one of the Golani Brigade – the fearsome infantry brigade of the Israeli Defence Army. 

“By spirit, by blood, we’ll redeem Al Aqsa,” called out the local fans, referring to the heart of the conflict – Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There were songs about Palestine and the chant of “Allahu Akbar” [God is great]. Beitar fans answered in the usual way with nationalistic and anti-Muslim chants. 

The annual matches are the much needed adrenalin rush for two mediocre football teams. “This is why we are in this league,” said a local fan. “During the game we can express our identity.” They are 180 minutes a year that crystallise the essence of Ittihad Abna Sakhnin. 

The game last November ended in a 1-0 win to Sakhnin and five added minutes of fouls, flying umbrellas and other objects, and players pleading for some restraint from the fans. Three Beitar players should have been sent off but the referee decided to ignore their fouls. Later the Israeli media complimented him for using his common sense and preventing a riot. Beitar fans took their rage out on the public toilets and the buses instead. 

One Beitar player later told the press that “We said to each other, ‘We can’t believe we lost that game.’ It was like a war for this country, more than sport and we should have won it.’” Another player said, “It drove me mad to see the media after the game. Did you forget you are the Israeli media? What we went through should be the headlines and not some broken sinks. 5000 people singing, ‘By blood we’ll redeem Al Aqsa,’ and you let them get away with it? If they could they would have made their way to the pitch and killed us all.”

Israeli football is still waiting for a moment equivalent to Zvonimir Boban kicking a Yugoslav policeman at the Maksimir but it’s most likely to happen at a Sakhnin v Beitar match. In the last round of the 2013 season, Sakhnin hosted Beitar for a match that might have resulted in Beitar’s relegation. The game ended in an uneventful 0-0 draw and with Beitar safe in the league. It was the most boring game between the two teams in many years. 

Doha Stadium, December 2014, Bnei Sakhnin v Hapoel Be’er Sheva

It was match day in Sakhnin and fans flocked to the stadium, passing memorial sites for the town’s shahids [Islamic martyrs]. Doha stadium has three stands and one wall covered with ads and oriental arches like a shabby Stade Louis II of AS Monaco. Qatar financed the building of the humble yet practical stadium – much to the chagrin of many Israelis.

Their opponents were Hapoel Be’er Sheva from the south of the country who at the time were second in the league. Be’er Sheva, a much better team with some excellent attacking players and about 1500 travelling fans, were expected to win easily. The visitors and Sakhnin’s vocal fans sat behind the two goals and ignored each other. Be’er Sheva fans sung their version of “Bad Moon Rising” while the locals chanted some generic support for their team, almost all of it in Hebrew. Among the Sakhnin fans was a group of Bedouins from the south, once part of Be’er Sheva’s heartlands but much less so since the rise of Sakhnin.

Uri Aviram, a famous Jewish fan of Sakhnin for over 20 years told me, “I took my kids and we were warmly welcomed, as at no other club, with coffee and a barbecue. I liked it and I said to myself, ‘I want to be here.’ The talk was still about coexistence then. I found wonderful people here, warm and caring. They are not ‘pet Arabs’ like the ones the Israeli left is looking for.” 

And what does he think about the current trend? “The whole league missed the chance to have a team like that as a calling card for Israeli football. Sakhnin could have represented the country in a great way with players of all religions. We’ve missed it. Now it is a political team. Too political. I wish it was the team of old.”

Galia is outspoken. “Can I smoke?” he asked me during the game when we were sitting in the small press box. “You can do whatever you want, it’s your home,” I said. 

“No, you are my guest so now it is your home,” he joked. “Just like you did to us with the country.”

Galia thinks that the waving of Palestinian flags started at the games against Beitar and took off from there. “People saw that they could express their opinion in football grounds,” he said. “It’s a stage where you can protest against everyday life, the killing of shahids, the situation in Jerusalem and to do it in front of TV and press. It’s the only time that the national media are here.”

Sakhnin started the game without a single Jewish player but midway through the first half, the goalkeeper Muhammad Kandil was injured and replaced by Ran Kadosh, formerly of Barnet and one of only two Jewish players in the squad. On his Facebook page you can see a picture of Kadosh celebrating a Sakhnin goal with a Jewish prayer, while his teammates bow for Muslim prayer and another player makes the sign of the cross. “Three religions, one team and one game we all love!” says the caption. “Each man shall live by his own belief! Bnei Sakhnin 2015 is the writing on the wall.”

Sakhnin are no longer the brutal team of the early years. They’re a team of short and fast players. Hapoel’s game is primitive and looks like pre-modern football with the defenders having to defend on their own while forwards stay upfield most of the time. Soon enough Be’er Sheva’s right-back was exposed and left facing two Sakhnin players. A foul in the box led to a penalty that Firas Mugrabi converted. Mugrabi bowed while the announcer and fans celebrated the goal in Hebrew.

At the start of the second half, Be’er Sheva switched to three at the back and the game was over. For a team that couldn’t defend with four, trying to hold the fast Sakhnin counter-attacks with only three was impossible and Muhammad Gadir, on loan from Maccabi Haifa and the best player on the pitch that day, made it 2-0 minutes after the restart. By then Be’er Sheva were playing in a 3-1-6 formation (with two Arab subs) that led to endless counter-attacks from the home side. Minutes from the end, the visitors won a free-kick near the Sakhnin goal and pushed seven players into the 18-yard box, but still the fans weren’t happy. “He’s a coward,” they said bitterly about Be’er Sheva’s manager Elisha Levy.

Sakhnin won the game 2-0 against a much stronger opponent and in the streets around the Doha, Be’er Sheva fans shook hands with Sakhnin fans and said, “Mabruk.” Last season when Be’er Sheva won 3-0 there, the scenes after the game were similar. A few local fans tried to provoke the away fans, chanting, “This is Palestine,” but they were ignored. Sometimes, even in Israel, football can be, however fragile it is, just football. 

“We tried to get into the league but we were rejected,“ says Galia. “For us it was more than a football league, it was an acceptance league but we were rejected. It’s like in politics, like those offensive words by Netanyahu. We are citizens of this country, not refugees! But thanks to him the unity of the Arab society will continue after the election.”