Arab state

Ori Lewis reports on the day that an Arab-Israeli side from a town of less than 22,000 people won the national cup and qualified for Europe, thus making a bold statement about uniting Arabs and Jews in Israel along the way

The night of May 18, 2004 will be marked in Israeli history books as a milestone for the country’s Arab minority, a sector that has long complained of institutional discrimination and that over the years had never been repaid fully for agreeing to become loyal citizens of the Jewish state.

When Bnei Sakhnin lifted the State Cup, Israel’s version of the FA Cup, on a warm evening at the National Stadium in Tel Aviv after beating Hapoel Haifa 4-1, the achievement reverberated throughout the Arab world. Some 30,000 fans cheered on Sakhnin, a town with a population of fewer than 22,000, and almost all Israeli Jews felt a sense of pride that a modicum of justice had been done. Even the 10,000 or so fans of Hapoel Haifa found it hard to begrudge their conquerors praise for a well earned victory, more importantly an achievement of great social significance.

Israel’s Arabs, who number some 1.1 mil­lion, make up nearly a fifth of the population. They are descended from families that stayed while hundreds of thousands fled or were forced out during the 1948 Independence War. They say the government fails to give the same funding to their towns, schools and other infrastructure as it does for Jews. “Dis­crim­ination is so obvious,” said Mohammed Bashir, mayor of Sakhnin, which is situated in the hills of Galilee in the north of the country. “Our people in Sakhnin hope that this win will open the door for a real and concrete partnership and equal rights,” he continued.

A year ago two Arab clubs won promotion to the premier league for the first time. Two teams in the 12-team division – about 20 per cent – was about right, considering that this is also roughly the proportion of the Arab minority among the Jewish state’s population of 6.5m. The promotion of Ahi Nazareth, the team that led the second division for most of the 2002-03 season, had looked assured, but Sakhnin sneaked in through the back door in the dying minutes of the season.

The impoverished town was not prepared for the occasion. None of the major TV networks had a crew on hand when the townsfolk danced in the streets throughout the night. It was a truly monumental occasion for a town that had once had a reputation as a hive of unrest and protest against the government. Nazareth were the team whom pundits thought would manage to challenge and keep their place in the league, but bickering in the boardroom cost them dearly and their fate was sealed well before the end of their cam­paign. For Sakhnin, a string of good results saw them avoid relegation. But the crowning glory came in the memorable cup final victory. That achievement will see Sakhnin become the first Arab club to play in European competition, in next season’s UEFA Cup. They will be followed closely by many fans across the entire Arab world, even in countries where Israel is reviled.

The club is made up mainly of home-grown players, three of whom have already played in national colours. There are also a number of Jewish Israelis and a small number of foreigners. “This victory is like a new start, a new era for Israeli Arabs,” said Sakhnin team captain Abbas Suan. Club chairman Mazen Ghnaim said: “We have qualified for Europe and we will prove to the world how to make peace between Jews and Arabs.”

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month