Israel | Bnei Sakhnin, by cultivating football, hopes to harvest peace

An area of great promise has been on the youth level, with such projects as the Jaffa youth team led by Rifat Turk—the first Arab player on the Israel national team and former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv—and the Peres Center for Peace’s Twinned Peace Sport Schools initiative. Soccer camps and ongoing integrated teams have been accompanied by visits of international stars such as Ronaldo and matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid and an all-star team of Jewish, Arab Israeli and Palestinian players.

After relegation in 2006, Bnei Sakhnin managed to make it back to the premier league within a season. A new stadium, paid by the governments of Qatar and Israel, and a new sponsor, the Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, whose largesse includes ownership of Beitar Jerusalem, bode well for the team.

Sakhnin is a town rich in religious shrines. The tombs of the Muslim saints Sheikh Ibrahim and Sheikh Obeid and of second-century Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin, along with “The Cave of the Ten”—named for ten righteous men, or, according to other traditions, the Ten Commandments—have long drawn supplicants. Along with the customary wishes for fertility and healing, Arab and Jewish players and fans might now be adding a new prayer.

Sources

Tamir Sorek, “Between Football and Martyrdom: The Bi-focal Localism of an Arab-Palestinian Town in Israel,” The British Journal of Sociology 56, no. 4 (2005): 635–60. Sorek is also author of Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Related works include three other Israeli films: (1) Beit Shean: Seret milhamah (Underdogs: A War Movie; 1996), about a poor Jewish town in the Jordan Valley the struggle of its team, Hapoel Beit Shean, to survive in the Israeli top division. The film focuses on class issues and relations between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews rather than Israeli nationalism. (2) Forerunners (2004), a documentary about three players working to form a women’s team in a start-up Israeli league—a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, a Sephardic Jew and a Christian Arab. (3) Gmar Gavi’a (Cup Final; 1991), Eran Riklis’s story of friendship between a Palestinian and Israeli fighting on opposite sides in the 1982 Lebanon War. The two are united by their love of the Italian soccer team, through which Cup Final extols the power of the game as a force for mutual recognition and understanding.

Update

As of Jan 09, with war raging in Gaza, Bnei Sakhnin has become a focus for anti-Arab feeling in Israel, according to James Montague on the Guardian website (“The Arab-Israeli Club Bridging the Divide … and Paying the Price,” 13 Jan 09). With the side struggling in Ligat Ha’Al, Sakhnin has re-signed Suan. Suan had left Maccabi Haifa in 2007 to join Ironi Kiryat Shmona.

But it was not clear, with matches being postponed and relocated—rockets fired from Gaza are in range of stadiums in Ashkelon, Beersheba and Ashdod—if Sakhnin could continue its schedule. The football association announced that it feared potential violence in Sakhnin, where pro-Gaza rallies were staged late in 2008.

Genaim, now mayor of Sakhnin, was quoted in a popular Israeli newspaper backing Gaza and the shahids (martyrs). Later, Genaim denied using the inflammatory term and claimed that other remarks were misquoted.

Sakhnin’s matches with Beitar Jerusalem in particular, Montague writes, “are fast becoming the most brutal derbies of an already derby-packed season.”

In fact [Sakhnin] players and fans need to be joined by an armed police escort 15km outside Jerusalem every time they play a match. Last year Beitar had to play a game behind closed doors after their fans sang songs defaming the Prophet Muhammad during a cup game.

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