The Arab-Israeli Conflict is Playing out on the Pitch
Israel's only soccer team based in an Israeli-Arab city will play host to Beitar Jerusalem, and its far right ultras "La Familia" on Sunday.
Photo by Raddad Jbara
On Sunday night, Beitar Jerusalem will face Bnei Sakhnin in the most intense, exciting, and high-security match of the entire soccer weekend.
Beitar Jerusalem is one of Israel's most famous, popular soccer teams. The club is also one of the oldest in Israeli soccer. Beitar plays its home matches in Teddy Stadium, named after legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. The club has won the Israeli Premier League and the State Cup seven times each.
But for many people across the world, the club is not known for its style of soccer or its achievements on the pitch. Rather, the club is known for its extremist right-wing supporters.
In the past few years, Beitar Jerusalem's ultras, also known as "La Familia," have set fire to the club's offices for signing two Chechen Muslim players; chanted "Death to Mohammed" at several matches; disrupted a moment of silence to honor assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; and verbally and physically assaulted Israeli-Arabs at Malha mall, a short walk from Teddy Stadium. The club has never signed an Israeli-Arab due to fear of reprisal from La Familia.
Bnei Sakhnin, on the other hand, is quite different. It is the only club in the Israeli Premier League that is based in an Israeli-Arab city. Despite having a relatively low budget compared to all the big clubs in Israeli soccer, Sakhnin has managed to play an attractive style of soccer and qualify for European competitions. The club is comprised mostly of Israeli-Arab players and has just five foreign players.
Sakhnin's top supporters call themselves "Sakhnin Ultras." Like La Familia, the Sakhnin Ultras are occasionally stirred to controversy. Recently, they lifted two signs reading "Jerusalem is ours" and "Police are whores."
As you might have guessed, Sakhnin's most heated rivalry is with none other than Beitar Jerusalem.
Earlier this season, Bnei Sakhnin held a ceremony to honor a Qatari businessman who donated $2 million to the team. During the ceremony, Sakhnin officials thanked Azmi Bishara, the founder of Israeli-Arab political party Balad, for coordinating between the club and the Qatari man who donated the money.
There was one problem though. Azmi Bishara fled Israel in 2007 while under investigation for passing sensitive information to Lebanese terrorist organisation Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War. Since fleeing Israel, Bishara has made Doha, Qatar his home.
Immediately after the match, Israeli politicians from the right attacked Sakhnin for paying tribute to a fugitive.
"When a soccer team in the Israeli League thanks someone who is suspected of spying and aiding Hezbollah, who fled from the country and incites against the State of Israel, there must be serious consequences," said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has recently been advocating a so-called Jewish state bill, and said of negotiations, "Jewish values come before democratic values if and when there is a clash between them." Lieberman even went on to say that Bnei Sakhnin deserved to be suspended from the league.
As a response, current Israeli-Arab member of Knesset (Parliament) Jamal Zahalka said, "Lieberman's sport is incitement against Arabs. He is not the first fascist who criticises athletes according to their skin color. He does not miss any opportunity or means to incite, attack and spread poisonous hate and racism."
Not only were Israeli politicians upset with the Sakhnin move, the Israeli Premier League was also furious.
"Sakhnin didn't give us any warning or indication they were going to do this", Kobby Barda, an Israeli Premier League spokesperson told VICE Sports. "We have told them that in football, you can't mix in politics. This is a basic rule everyone knows."
Sakhnin's general manager Khalid Dokhi insisted to VICE Sports that the club never meant to upset anyone and for them it was just about the club surviving. In the Israeli Premier League, if you are not one of the top clubs (Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi & Hapoel Tel Aviv, and Beitar Jerusalem) it is very difficult to find sponsorship deals.
"We just wanted to say thank you to the people who helped us get this money. Without this money, Sakhnin would have not been able to play this season."
But the damage was done and La Familia have been waiting for the opportunity to travel to Doha stadium in Sakhnin to respond. La Familia called on its supporters to arrive in Sakhnin draped with Israeli flags. Several right-wing activists are expected to attend the match as well.
In a time when the peace talks with the Palestinians have completely broken down and there has been a spike in violence, a match like like this is a very dangerous event. So dangerous many Israelis believe the police is doing everything it can to make sure the match does not go ahead as planned.
On Thursday afternoon, Israeli police announced that they are closing Doha Stadium because there are not enough emergency exits, but it was clear that it was just an excuse from the police to not approve the match. The police statement caught Sakhnin officials by surprise, but they vowed the match would take place at Doha as expected.
If the police ultimately decide the match will not be held in Sakhnin, Bnei Sakhnin officials have said they will not play anywhere else but Doha stadium. But sources close to the club told VICE Sports that despite the threats of shutting down the stadium, a final decision should be made late Friday and that the match will likely be held in Sakhnin.
If it is: On Sunday night, nearly 1,000 police officers and stewards will be on hand to make sure that 5,000 supporters go home safely. That means for every five supporters at the match, there is a security representative watching their every move.
So whether you are watching Arsenal vs. Manchester United, the Milan derby, or Sevilla vs. Barcelona this weekend, remember that in a small town in Northern Israel, two clubs with two completely different ideologies will meet each other on the pitch. But the point of interest in the match will not be the final score; it will be what is happening in the stands.