Bnei Sakhnin seem like any other football club in the Israeli Premier League. A strong Israeli contingent, Israeli manager and an Israeli chairman. But something makes this club different from the 13 others in the league. Ilija Trojanovic tells us their story.
They play in the Israeli league, but they’re not exactly Israelis.
Fourteen miles north of Acre, where three hills lush with olive trees form an uneven valley, lies the sloping Arab town of Sakhnin. It is this small town of only 25,000 people that FC Bnei Sakhnin call home. Israelis are allowed to play for the club, and their manager is even an Israeli Jew, but most of their players are Arab Muslims, and they are currently the only Arab team playing in the Israeli Premier League.
In 2003, Bnei Sakhnin made history by reaching the top tier of Israeli football; a milestone for an Arab club. A year after reaching the highest echelon of Israeli football, Bnei Sakhnin lifted the Israeli State Cup and were the first Arab club to win the tournament.
For many teams in the league this was seen as a slap in the face to Israeli football, and despite Bnei Sakhnin’s triumphs on the pitch, the club is still upbraided and harassed by opposing teams fans off the pitch, because of course, they are the Arab club. Every match for Sakhnin is a heated one, where their players are targeted with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans, banners, & chants. And although in footballing lexicon a derby is usually described as a match where two teams from the same city or town vie for local dominance, one club has declared Bnei Sakhnin as their eternal rivals, and it’s not Hapoel Sakhnin, the town’s other club.
This team is Beitar Jerusalem, who are more than 150 kilometers away from Sakhnin. Known for being an ultra right wing club, they have never signed and have no intention of ever signing an Arab player. Beitar Jerusalem sanction the most stomach-churning displays of support from any club in the world. Racist abuse towards black players in Europe is deplorable, but by no means does it compare to the reception Bnei Sakhnin players receive when they play away at Beitar’s Teddy Stadium.
Even when Israeli-Arab Abbas Suan, who also happens to be a Bnei Sakhnin legend, scored Israel’s 90th-minute equalizer against Ireland which kept them in contention for a spot at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Beitar Jerusalem fans were unimpressed. When he returned for a club fixture against Beitar with Bnei Sakhnin after his crucial goal for Israel, Beitar fans held up banners saying “Suan, you don’t represent us” and “We hate all Arabs.”
Supported by jingoist Israeli presidents like Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu, and whose same supporters were purported to be behind the killing of 16-year old Muhammad Abu-Khdeir last month, it comes as no surprise that Beitar direct such xenophobic sentiments towards Arabs, and ultimately the epitome of Arabs in Israeli football, Bnei Sakhnin. But this article is not about Beitar Jerusalem. They are a self-declared racist club who have cemented themselves as one of the most hated teams in football.
This article is about Bnei Sakhnin, who in a month’s time will kick off their campaign in the Israeli league, still, as the only Arab club competing in it. In light of the onslaught against the Palestinians of Gaza, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy testifies that after the latest operation “we will face a new Israel…nationalistic, religious in many ways…militaristic with very little empathy for the sacrifice of the other side.” For the other thirteen teams in the league, the other side, or the Arabs, are Bnei Sakhnin.
In a recent incident, Bnei Sakhnin fans showed their bravado in a match again Beitar by waving Palestinian flags. In response, Beitar’s most violent hooligans known as La Familia ripped out pages from the Qur’an and burned them at the stadium. This infuriated Israeli Knesset (Parliament) member Miri Regev, who paid no attention to the La Familia’s grotesque Qur’an burning, but demanded Bnei Sakhnin be expelled from the Israeli league for waving Palestinian flags.
It’s no mystery that Israel has targeted Palestinian football in its brutal occupation of the Palestinian people. In an article by The Nation’s David Zirin earlier this year, he highlighted this fact by reporting on the attack of two teenage Palestinian footballers, Jawhar Nasser Jawher, 19, and Adam And al-Raouf Halabiya, 17 by Israeli troops at a checkpoint near the West Bank. The two footballers were shot with “ten bullets were put into Jawhar’s feet [and] Adam took one bullet in each foot.” Surely, the troops knew they were footballers. The latest incident targeting Palestinian football occurred this month when former player and until recently a coach, Ahed Zaqqut, was killed in his home during recent bombardment of Gaza.
After every conflict between the two sides, tensions flare and national sentiments become even more confrontational. The ugly anti-Arab reception Bnei Sakhnin will receive this year won’t only be in their away fixture against Beitar Jerusalem, but in every away game they embark on. As FIFA invests millions to fight against racism prevalent in tribunes across Europe, very little is being done to protect the players of Bnei Sakhnin. Files after files of complaints have been handed to football’s governing body to do something about the plight of Palestinian football at the hands of Israel, but all FIFA’s supine statements sound something like this: “The problems between Israel and Palestine have been going on for more than 50 years and it would not be possible for us to solve them in one year.”
As most of today’s footballers eagerly anticipate the recommencing of their league campaigns — unless they haven’t already begun, the players and coaches of Bnei Sakhnin can only imagine the backlash they will receive in a league that is predominantly anti-Arab. A respectable 6th place finish last year meant that Bnei Sakhnin can clearly answer back their critics on the pitch, but as this upcoming year will be different than most due to the worst fighting Palestinians and Israelis have seen in years, Bnei Sakhnin will have a tougher test, both on and off the pitch and it is for this reason, the world must familiarize itself with this small, suffering, yet very successful football club.
Written by Ilija Trojanovic. Follow him on Twitter @paliserb
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