Way More Than a Game: Football in Israel

Nazareth – The rivalry between the Israeli football clubs Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem has transcended mere sport.  These two clubs, one from Israel’s self-declared capital and one from an Arab city in the Galilee with a population of 25,000, are bitter rivals, but they have come to represent rival ideologies as well. From the outside their contests are an athletic performance, though, as usual, to the people involved, they represent so much more.

This year the match between Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem will be held on November 10. With a little over half the season left to play, neither team has a winning record. This match in particular has only moderate significance in terms of league standing, yet both are in mild danger of relegation to the second division. However, Doha Stadium in Sakhnin will most assuredly be full when the “Lions from the Capital” come to town this Saturday night.

To understand the fierce rivalry between these two teams, there is one place to start: Land Day 1976.  In the spring of 1976, the Israeli government decided to expropriate 20,000 dunams (1 dunam = ¼ acre) of land in the Galilee for military use and for new Jewish settlements.  Led by Tawfiq Ziad, father of “poetry of protest”, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel organized massive protests against the decision.  The protests quickly turned into riots when the IDF was called in to quell the unrest.  Six Arab citizens were killed, hundreds were wounded, and hundreds more were imprisoned.  This was the first time the Arab minority organized mass political protests since the foundation of Israel.

The Land Day monument in Sakhnin

In October of 2000, the Al Aqsa Intifada was raging in Gaza and the West Bank.  Palestinians all over the world were frustrated with the failure of the Oslo Accords and they started pushing back against the Israeli occupation.  Following the wide publication of a video showing the death of Mohammad al-Durra, a twelve-year-old boy killed by a barrage of Israeli bullets in Gaza, Palestinians inside Israel took up the call for change.  In the tradition of Ziad and the 1976 riots, protests and demonstrations sprang up in Arab towns and cities in the Galilee, with a particular frequency in Sakhnin.   Several days of clashes between protesters and the police culminated in the shooting of 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel and a Gazan day-laborer.  The circumstances of the deaths have been the cause of much review and a series of counter-accusations from both sides. Local journalist Jonathan Cook concludes his book on the incident, “Blood and Religion”, with the revelation that the police had a “shoot-to-kill” policy in place and that they regarded the Palestinian minority as “an enemy”. No formal investigation has been held to hold the perpetrators responsible.

The graves of three of the 13 martyrs in Sakhnin.

Since 2000, the 13 Palestinians killed in the protests have become martyrs for Palestinian cause inside Israel.  Every October, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel flock to Sakhnin to protest the killing of the 13 martyrs and to call for punishment for those responsible. The yearly protests culminate in a march to the Sakhnin cemetery, where three of the martyrs are buried near a memorial commemorating their sacrifice.  In some ways, Sakhnin has become the epicenter of Palestinian struggle for equal rights inside Israel.

October 2012 – Palestinian Arabs protest on the streets of Sakhnin

In those twelve years since the death of the 13 martyrs Sakhnin has found itself the home of not just political unrest, but also a very good football team.

Bnei Sakhnin F.C. was founded in 1991 as the product of the merger of two lesser, local squads. They competed in lower division play until the 2002-2003 season when they earned promotion to the first division.  Despite low expectations and a stadium unfit for the premier league, Bnei Sakhnin continued to grow in prominence. In other words, they won, a lot.

With the acquisition of several key players and manager Eyal Lahman, and the emergence of captain Abbas Suan, they were able to win the National Cup in 2003-2004.

Abbas Suan warming up for Bnei Sakhnin

The success of Bnei Sakhnin drew international attention.  Captain Abbas Suan played for the Israeli national team and was featured in Sports Illustrated Magazine. Their National Cup victory won them the right to be the first Arab team from Israel to compete in Europe.

With success on the pitch, Bnei Sakhnin F.C. and its players have struggled with their symbolic role representing the Arab Palestinian minority. Abbas Suan, having played on the Israeli national team, has a particularly difficult role in the battle of symbolism and identity being waged in his name.  Suan discussed this conflict of interest with Sports Illustrated in 2005, “I represent most of the Arab problems in Israel, problems of land and discrimination. For all the Israeli people I want to emphasize that we can live together, but [the Jewish majority] has to listen to our problems.” Suan refuses to sing the Israeli national anthem before games when he plays for the national team.

[Click here for a short documentary about Palestinian Arabs living in Israel.  Abbas Suan scores for the Israeli national team at 0:17]

The players weren’t the only ones struggling with their new role, external forces began fighting battles over the spirit of Bnei Sakhnin as well. Investors from Qatar initiated a project to build a new stadium in Sakhnin. The $6 million dollar project became a source of embarrassment for Israel, and there was even a formal petition to change the name from “Doha Stadium” to “HaShalom Stadium”.  Sakhnin’s mayor, Mohammad Bashir, stepped in and protected the stadium’s name with the public’s support.  For the Qataris, Bnei Sakhnin championed Arab nationalism.

In 2010, the rise of Bnei Sakhnin was documented in a critically acclaimed documentary.  With “After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United”, Christopher Browne, an American, sought to “follow the season after Bnei Sakhnin’s historic win, as they face an unprecedented series of challenges and unrealistic expectations while trying to survive in the Premier League.”  Browne tried to use his film to install a western post-colonial narrative of growing togetherness and acceptance between Israel’s coexisting national groups.

Regardless of the trajectory of assimilation trends, the fact is that many, many issues of discrimination and bigotry still face the Arab Palestinian minority and, for the foreseeable future, Bnei Sakhnin and their egalitarian approach to the game will continue to represent some part of their national spirit as it exists in opposition to the more conservative, racist, and bigoted segments of Israeli society.

If Bnei Sakhnin F.C. represents the aspirations of the Palestinian Arab minority, Beitar Jerusalem represents the exclusive, conservative segments of Israeli society.  Beitar’s identity was forged  in the fires of pre-Israel Zionism, having been established by a conservative leader in 1935. Today, fans at Teddy’s Field – Beitar’s home field so-named for former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek – are famous for their hostility.  They nicknamed the pitch “gehinom” (“Hell”) and their most fervent supporters come from the infamous “La Familia” group, which exists to antagonize Arab and minority players. One year before the founding of “La Familia”, in 2004, the New Israel Fund performed a study to track racism in Israeli football.  Even without the most fervent fanatics, the findings concluded that Beitar Jerusalem’s fans were the most racist against Arab players of any club in Israel.

Beitar Jerusalem fans proudly waving their yellow and black scarves

Other clubs let the free market dictate how to field the best team possible, but Beitar, perhaps simply as a function of subservience to its rabid fans, operates with racist priorities. They have never signed an Arab player. Team officials have only poor explanations for the omission.  After suffering a minor penalty from the Israel Football Association (IFA) earlier this year after a particularly violent bout of racist rage in Teddy’s Field, Beitar spokesman, Assaf Shaked said “We are against racism and we suffer for our fans, But we aren’t going to bring an Arab player just to annoy the fans.” This is a pretty clear case of a delusion-induced causation fallacy.

Various incidents through history illustrate the truth behind Beitar Jerusalem’s reputation.  During a 1974 match with Hapoel Petah Tikva, the Beitar fans stormed the pitch to attack the opponent’s players.  In a 2007 match against Bnei Sakhnin in the Toto Cup, La Familia led chants insulting the Prophet Mohammad.  Earlier this year, hundreds of Beitar fans clad in yellow and black flooded Malha Mall in Jerusalem and attacked the Arab cleaning personnel.  A spokesman for Or-Orly cleaning services described the incident as a “mass-lynching attempt”. Despite the existence of incriminating security camera footage, hundreds of witnesses, and the widely documented chanting of slogans like “death to the Arabs”; no charges were filed against the rioting fans.

[Click here for a video of Beitar Jerusalem fans swarming Malha Mall and chanting “Death to the Arabs”]

Though the hooliganism of Beitar Jerusalem fans is most often directed at Arabs, other ethnic minorities are targeted as well.  Last week’s match between Beitar and Hapoel Tel Aviv erupted into a callous display of racism toward Nigerian-born Hapoel player, Toto Tamuz.  The crowd chanted monkey noises and provoked him throughout the game (“Give Toto a banana”).  In a similar incident two years ago, the IFA penalized Beitar for their fans’ discretions.  This time, Toto Tamuz was treated as the offending party.  He scored a go-ahead goal and celebrated by shushing the crowd.  The referee gave him a second yellow card for his poor sportsmanship.  Following his ejection from the game, the referee called him “a shame and a disgrace” and the IFA suspended him for two games.  The racism of Beitar’s fans is one thing, but the misallocation of punishment in this case, and the reprieve from punishment for the attacks in Malha Mall are much more disappointing.  It signals a systematic and institutionalized disregard for ethnic minorities in Israel and human rights equality in general.

That brings us to this Saturday’s game. The political importance of this yearly match between Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem in Israel’s Liga ha-Al is comparable to the importance of South Africa Springboks’ victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. If it proceeds calmly with no unforeseen incidents, it may foreshadow the very inclusive togetherness fostered by the Springboks’ victory, which may decrease the public’s tolerance for such suffocating racism.  However, an undeserved penalty or last second goal could set off riots.  Anything could happen.  Though, the Springboks’ victory came after Mandela was elected president.  This game, however, will be played under Israel’s still very much broken Democracy. Israel’s government and institutions are all built to cater to the inherent inequality and racism that manifests in the actions of the Beitar fans.

So set the date on your calendars, November 10, 2012.  A stew of sectarian division and football fanaticism has been brewing and it is set to boil.

UPDATE:  The results of the game courtesy of the Jerusalem Post:

“Betar Jerusalem’s winning streak was snapped on Saturday with a 1-1 draw at Bnei Sakhnin.

As ever, tensions were running high ahead of the showdown between the two bitter rivals in the wet Doha Stadium.

The Sakhnin fans were flying high when Yero Bello gave the hosts the lead in the 14th minute, but Betar picked up a deserved point and extended its unbeaten streak to five matches thanks to Avi Rikan’s goal in the 48th minute.

Sakhnin ended the match with nine players after Bello was sent off in the 88th minute for making an indecent gesture towards the Betar bench while Khaled Khalaila was shown a second yellow (92) for an impulsive foul.”

The JPost article doesn’t go into it, but there were fights outside Doha Stadium after the game.  A particularly rambunctious group of Beitar Jerusalem fans made the trip up to Sakhnin despite the rain storm, including far-right MK Baruch Marzel, famous for organizing protests in support of the law banning recognition of the Nakba. The ejections at the end of the game and Marzel’s attendance with a police escort incited some violence, though no serious injuries have been reported.

2 thoughts on “Way More Than a Game: Football in Israel

  1. Pingback: Beitar Jerusalem’s fans refuse to change | Arab Association for Human Rights

  2. Pingback: A Self Perpetuating Cycle of Racism - The Times of Zion | The Times of Zion

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