The lengthy struggle of the Druze to put together a team to play in the Israeli league
It is the eighth round of the 2018 Israeli Cup, and the two teams meeting in Netanya, near Tel Aviv, couldn’t be more different. Maccabi Tel Aviv are the oldest, most decorated and richest club in Israeli football. They were champions in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and have been a constant feature in the group phase of the Europa League as well as reaching the Champions League group stage in 2016. Maccabi played in the last three cup finals and although they lost the last two, they are still the most successful club in the old cup competition with 23 victories.
The away team is Bnei MMBA, haGolan vehaGalil (Sons of MMBA, the Golan and the Galilee). The club was formed only three years ago and is based in the north-eastern tip of Israel on the Syrian border. The club represents the four Druze villages in the Golan Heights (Mas’ade, Majdel Shams, Buca’ta and Ein Qiniyye), combined population 20,000. They had never previously played against any team from the top division or from the centre of Israel. While Maccabi’s annual budget is around £30m; MMBA’s is about £110,000.
To get to Netanya, Bnei MMBA had to go through the narrow roads of the Golan, flanked by minefields, the twisted remains of tanks and dozens of memorials for the dead, testimony to two wars on this basalt land. The wild landscapes, where you are as likely to see a wild boar, jackal, vulture or even wolves as another car, are like no other in Israel. It snows there a few times a year and the wind in the valleys bends the trees at 90 degrees. From the heights of the Golan where dormant volcanoes now are adorned by military camps watching over Syria, they reached some of the lowest places on earth in the northern part of the Great Rift Valley, went on to the hills around Nazareth and to the stadium near the Mediterranean Sea. Still, it is nothing compared to the troubles they had to go through in order to have a team at all.
It is half time and the score is 0-0.
The game is not just a modern-day David v Goliath, but a remarkable tale of the most ground-breaking team in the Israeli leagues. Based, in some parts of Majdal Shams, just a few meters from the border fence, MMBA had to come over 50 years of local resistance to taking part in Israeli football. They had their own minefields and volcanoes to negotiate.
The Druze, a small ethno-religious group, branched off from Islam in the 11th century and since then have lived as a closed religion. “The Druze,” said Salim Brik of Israel’s Open University, “suffered from Islamic persecution because they were considered infidels. This is the reason they live on mountains tops.”
The Druze are mainly based in the Middle East, with 700,000 living in Syria, 350,000 in Lebanon, 135,000 in Israel and a large diaspora in the USA, Canada and Venezuela. “The Druze are not allowed to form their own army,” say Brik. “They have to be loyal to the country they live in and that is the obligation of loyalty. Their religion prohibits them from forming their own state.”
This rule has complicated the lives of the Golan Druze for 51 years. While the big Druze community inside Israel proper is loyal to Israel and many of its members serve in the Israeli armed forces, the Golan Druze, under Israeli occupation since the Six Days War in 1967, remained loyal to Syria.
When Israel conquered the Golan, a mountainous plateau above the Sea of Galilee and northern Israel, most of the Syrian population fled or was deported. Only the four Druze villages near the slopes of Mount Hermon were left to stay in a typically grandiose and deluded Israeli plan to form a Druze buffer zone.
The plan fell apart and Israel found itself with a Druze population loyal to Syria. Along with the cultural reasons there was also practical thinking behind it. For many years Israel and Syria negotiated a peace agreement that would have seen the Golan switch hands and go back to Syrian control. In such a case, it was better for the Druze to show loyalty to their future masters.
When Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, demonstrations broke out in the villages and the majority refused to take Israeli IDs. Those who did accept an Israeli passport were ostracised and isolated. However, the Druze population became more embedded in Israeli life – most of them work with Israelis, speak fluent Hebrew, meet them on daily basis at work and in the booming tourist industry in the beautiful Golan. “I was surprised when young students from the Golan told me that they grow up as Israelis and felt Israeli and don’t know anything about Syria,” said Brik. There was one symbol that the old generation held on to despite the eroding hostility to Israel: football.
Many Druze players from the Golan joined Israeli teams but the idea of a local team in the Israeli leagues was taboo. The villagers had to make do with an internal tournament between the four villages, which was far from satisfactory. In 2013 a group of locals dipped their toes in the water and formed a youth team that joined the Israeli League but their first game in Majdal Shams was cut short when protestors told the players that, “This is Syrian land and the Israeli FA doesn’t have any rights there.” Nadib Ayub, the manager of the team, said at the time, “It is a disaster for us and especially for the children. It was supposed to be a historic game for us; to host our first game at home. Nothing prepared us for such a scenario, I’m very sorry.”
Two years later, in the autumn of 2015, Bnei MMBA were formed and this time managed to put down roots in the fertile soil of the Golan. It was long overdue as the team started in the fifth tier. It was sign of the times, the last barrier breached.
One of the founders was Wejdi Elkish, a player-coach and the face of the team in the media. He is a 35-year-old PE teacher from Buk’ata, who once played for Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona, the best team in the region. His friends say he was “a footballer from birth”.
“I dreamt about it for many years,” Elkish said when we met in Mas’ade. “I saw that there are many players from the villages and that if we gathered them we could build a good team. It’s not a secret that some people objected to the idea and they had managed to kill the initiative in the past but the war gave us a push. Time did its job. What is allowed now was forbidden before.”
The war in Syria is felt in the Golan. Tourists fill the restaurants in Mas’ade high street beneath the snow-capped Hermon but the risk of local clashes or regional war is never far away. The competing interests of Russia, Iran, USA and Israel only intensify the risk. From Majdal Shams you can see the border and hear the war in Mas’ade. The main concern for everybody is for their Druze brothers on the other side, and those in the nearby Syrian town of Hader. “Everyone in the Golan has a relative in Syria,” said Brik, “and they care about them. The most important rule in the Druze faith is to look out for your brothers”.
The Druze of the Syrian Golan live under the threat of Islamic terror from one side and the barbaric and oppressive Assad regime on the other side. While Israel has played an increasingly active role in the war over the past year and helped the rebels, Brik believes one thing is clear: “There is an existential threat to all Druze in the Middle East, apart from, paradoxically, in Israel including the Golan.”
With Syria disintegrating, the chance of a return of the Golan to Assad gone, and a safe and comfortable life in Israel, the old emotional ties to the motherland have weakened. The young generation that has grown up as Israelis have at last had a chance to achieve their football dream. Elkish is the friendly face of MMBA. “Just as there are Israelis of Moroccan descent, or Yemeni origin, I am a Druze of Syrian descent but I live in Israel in a respectable way and I love my life here,” he said.
But in order to convince the hardliners, they needed somebody who knew a thing or two about hard lines. Another founder was Samikh Samara. He grows mangos near the Sea of Galilee and he is the political force behind MMBA. He named his children Fidel and Havana and attended Fidel Castro’s funeral. “I am a revolutionary,” he said. Unlike the loveable Wajdi, he is an outspoken person with a taste for provocation. He has served time in an Israeli jail for smuggling arms across the border.
“People change,” he said. “The Rabin of 1987 [Israel’s hawkish defence minister] is not the Rabin of 1992 [the prime minister and peacemaker who was assassinated]; the Samikh of 2001 is not the Samikh of 2018. I was 20 years old, I smuggled arms, did time, learned in jail, and changed. I live in Israel and work with Jews every day. 90% of them accept me and understand me. Yes, I was in jail but I did not murder anybody. I did not do anything unforgivable.
“People used to ask me why I wanted a team in the Israeli league and I answered, ‘You tell me why not?’ Golan Druze contractors work with the Ministry of Defence, teachers teach at Israeli schools, lawyers act in Israeli courts but to play football with an Israeli team was forbidden.”
So what has changed?
“The war made it clear that you need to take care of your people. The Golan Druze, despite the link to Syria, want to live in a place that gives them safety. And where is it? The state of Israel, brother. A person can’t belong to a place where his son is murdered. Where his family is kidnapped and where he doesn’t have food or a roof over his head.
“I am a leader and with my charisma and rhetorical ability I’ve managed to persuade many people who said, ‘Well, If Samikh Samara the politician has joined the club; the one who did time for crimes against the state, then there is something good going on.’
“We know that our destiny is not in our hands. There has been an occupation since 1967 and the uncertainty is the most constant factor in our lives. We didn’t choose to live in Israel and we won’t decide whether to go back to Syria. In the meantime I’m living my life here like any other citizen. The occupation started in 1967 and I don’t see it ending soon. Until then I can’t go on without football.”
And there is the heart of the matter. Put a few people together and they will form a team that will represent them and their cause. It is as basic as the urge to play. 48 years without a football team to follow, to care for, to be proud of or to make your life a misery is high price to pay for a conflict in which Elkish, Samara and their friends are just pawns.
The team has to play its games in Tuba-Zangaria, a Bedouin village in the Galilee 50km from Mas’ade. They managed to win promotion to the fourth tier in their second season. This season they finished in a respectable seventh place but had their big moment in the cup.
Their first taste of mainstream exposure came in the seventh round when they played in the national Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem against Beitar Nordia Jerusalem, a splinter club of the more famous Beitar, that has had enough of the overt racism of fans of the rump club. Bnei MMBA beat the team from a league above 3-2 and waited for the draw.
To get an away game against Maccabi was a dream come true for Elkish. TV exposure, money and a chance to play against famous players and an even more famous manager in Jordi Cruyff, son of Johan. All available cars and buses were requisitioned to make the journey to Netanya and 1650 fans, many of them with Che Guevara berets (Samara’s idea), arrived at the game.
“I love Israeli football and to see all the stars near me was unbelievable,” said Elkish, who was injured at the time and acting as manager. “To see the name Bnei MMBA on the scoreboard was beyond our dreams.”
The first half was more straightforward than he could have hoped for. MMBA kept their shape and Maccabi didn’t create any chances. 15 minutes into the second half and it was still 0-0. “I started to believe,” said Samara, but you could see fatigue creeping in. Maccabi began to threaten the goal of the grey-headed veteran goalkeeper Eyal Vakrat, the only Jewish Israeli in the team. In the 70th minute they scored the first goal.
Eight minutes later, Amer Abu Jabel, the MMBA substitute, found himself in a shooting position just outside the box, MMBA’s first real chance. He struck his shot well, but it was saved and the opportunity was gone. Maccabi won 3-0 but MMBA went home with a great sense of satisfaction.
“I’m proud of my players,” said Elkish. “They played a game they will never forget. We will enjoy the long journey home as we showed that this club has a future. I know that the media interest was because of the political story but in the end we are more than just that.”
Despite the defeat, the game is the proudest moment in MMBA’s history: bigger than their formation and their promotion, it was the tipping point moment. For the first time, they reached a national audience and, far more important, they became the team of the Golan.
“In the past, every time a village played against another there were problems and anger. Now everybody is united behind MMBA. I’m in touch with people from Majdal Shams after many years and the four villages are united. It’s not, ‘I am from Majdal,’ and, ‘I’m from Mas’ade,’ it’s ‘we are from the Golan’ now,’” said the fan Naal Awad.
In 2019, the club hope to host the games in Mas’ade, against the back drop of the Hermon in what could become an iconic ground. It could lead to increased sales of season tickets, secure revenues and attracting more fans, support and sponsors. It could be a vital step in the evolution of the club.
MMBA have four academy teams with some Israeli players alongside the Druze. On a clear winter day, the youth team played on the pristine synthetic pitch in Kiryat Shmona against a team from the Arab town of Tamra. Not far from the local stadium, scarred from shrapnel after the 2006 war with Lebanon, Israeli football displays its unique character. Two teams, one Arab, the other Druze, played in the Israeli league, shouted commands in Arabic and Hebrew, cursed in Arabic that every Israeli understands and celebrated goals in Hebrew. In the stands watched four fans from Buk’ata. Three girls in trendy all-black western clothes and one boy in traditional baggy trousers and a large white religious skull cap.
While football was the last frontier for the Golan Druze, it is one of the most open fields in Israeli society. Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the champions for the last two seasons, have five Israeli-Arab players, Bnei Sachnin, an Arab Israeli team, are a constant member of the top league and Bibras Natcho of CSKA Moscow, a Circassian player, captained the national team in March. For some, like Eyal Berkovic, a former player turned media buffoon, it was too much, but for most it was a welcome move.
“I know these kids, the players, from Kiryat Shmona where they started playing,” said Vakrat, the goalkeeper. “They are good people and we have a common goal. We go out together once a week and the good will doesn’t end on the pitch. 90% of the reactions are positive and people understand you can’t stop it. They just want to play football and don’t care about the rest.”
“When we play in the Golan we will move another step forward, then you feel the team presence here,” said Elkish.
And what about their relatives across the border?
“They don’t care about it. They’ve got more pressing issues. Like surviving.“