Mix and match

Ori Lewis explains how newly promoted Hapoel Taibe blazed a trail in the Israeli first division

The new Israeli league soccer season is different to all the others in one significant respect. For the first time in the state’s history a club from the Arab sector is participating in the 16-team National League.

Taibe is a town of 28,000 people in the heart of Israel. The club is made up of mainly Moslem Arab players, the bulk of whom grew up in Taibe, but there are four Jewish players in the squad, and two foreigners imported by Polish coach Wojtek Lazarek.

Like all the other clubs in Israel’s two top divisions, Taibe are a fully professional outfit and hopes for the season are high among both the players and the fans. The club, which began in the sixth division in 1961, has never been relegated during its long climb through the league and there is no fear among the supporters or the players that the pattern is about to reverse itself.

The ‘Hapoel’ prefix indicates that the club is part of the sports wing of the Histradut, the Israeli trade union movement, and is therefore strongly connected with the Labour party. The official political links have been much weakened in recent years, with Histradut selling clubs off to private investors as the cost of running fully professional clubs has soared. There is nevertheless a traditional support for Hapoel clubs among people who identify with the left, just as Betar clubs are backed by people who follow the right-wing Likud party. A third group of clubs, called Maccabi, were originally linked to the Liberal movement, which was strong until the end of the Sixties but is all but dead now. Players can move freely between any of the clubs these days, with one exception: Betar Jerusalem’s bosses have said that they would be more than happy to welcome an Arab player, and this is probably true. But so far there have been no players knocking at the club’s door. They know full well that the fans, with a reputation for being the most boisterous and fanatical in Israel, would not give them a favourable reception.

Simply because they are an Arab side, Israeli police will be especially vigilant wherever Taibe play. “The very first thing we thought about after we knew we would be promoted was the game against Betar Jerusalem,” said Karem Haj Yihye, a supporter who follows the club to every match. The two sides met for the very first time on 10th August in Jerusalem in the Sportoto Cup, a minor domestic competition. Officials and players of both clubs greeted each other very amicably, but the game was marred by Betar supporters throwing bottles and chanting “Mavet la’Aravim” (‘death to the Arabs’). After the match a small group of fans stoned some of the Taibe supporters’ cars as they left for the 120-km drive home.

If that incident, which was perpetrated by some 100 hot-headed Betar supporters out of the 5,000 spectators on hand, is an indication of what’s to come when the stakes become much higher, then followers of Israeli football are in for a very eventful season.

But amazingly, the Taibe supporters take these sort of incidents in their stride. The club has become the showpiece of Israel’s Arab football community. There are over 100 clubs in the country’s six senior divisions, but Taibe carries the flag – the Israeli flag. For regardless of the enmity of the past and of the present, Taibeans make it perfectly clear that they see themselves as loyal Israelis, apparently brushing aside the fact that they have for years suffered the fate of unofficially being designated as second-class citizens.

Taibe is still unmistakably an Arab town. Only some of the streets are paved, there is little urban planning, there are no parks, no central shopping mall – a staple feature of modern Jewish-Israeli urban living – no cinema or recreational facilities.

The lack of public amenities and recreational attractions has turned the townsfolk into devoted fans of their home team, though many are unable or unwilling to actually go to watch a game.

“Taibe used to suffer from an exceptionally high crime rate, and drug dealers used to roam the streets freely, but that is very much a thing of the past,” says Abdel Rahman Haj Yihye, the club’s chairman. But outside the community, it is not uncommon for most Israelis to still consider Taibe a no-go area, and some Jews continue to relate to their Arab fellow countrymen as being the enemy within.

With this sort of image problem, it is not difficult to understand why the taunts abound from the terraces at matches. “We’re used to hearing the taunts,” said Sameh Haj Yihye, a Hebrew University students, “but we know that these are only words, nobody has died from hearing them and it only makes us support our own team more vehemently”.

Israel has not been without its Arab stars on the pitch, most notably Zahi Armeli, a striker with Maccabi Haifa, and Rifat ‘Jimmy’ Turk, a burly midfielder with Hapoel Tel Aviv. Both are now retired, but were very influential players in Israel’s national side and with their respective clubs during the Seventies and Eighties.

While Hapoel Taibe may be a source of pride for Israel’s Arabs, the club does not see itself as being the standard bearer for the Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank Autonomy or in Gaza. “We are Israelis, there is no question about that,” said Karem Haj Yihye, a waiter at a major hotel who was wearing a T-shirt which read “I climbed Massada”, a major historical symbol of the Jews’ struggle against their enemies. “We don't have any connection with the Palestinians, they live over there (pointing in the direction of the border between Israel and the West Bank, which is just a few kilometres to the east) and because of the closure and security crossing points we hardly have any contact with them.” “We are trying to do all we can to run a professional outfit, we are pleased at any support we get, but do not go out looking to represent the whole Arab world,” says Abdul Rahman, who owns a carpentry workshop but devotes most of his time to club matters.

The mayor of Taibe, Rafik, also from the Haj Yihye clan, is one of the club’s eight-man committee. He was once previously shortlisted to become Israel's first-ever Arab ambassador, but his appointment to the job in Finland was never confirmed. Like any city mayor, Rafik Haj Yihye has a lot on his plate; not least he needs to do something about rebuilding a stadium for the pride and joy of his town. The ramshackle 2,500 seat ground, on the top of a hill which is also the town’s rubbish tip, is accessible only by two dirt tracks – one to get up the hill and the other to get down on the other side.

In the meantime, Taibe will play all their home matches at the Mediterranean coast town of Netanya, a Jewish population centre which in the Seventies and early Eighties used to boast one of Israel’s top sides. But Maccabi Netanya have since had to live with adversity in the Second Division, and it is now left to the visitors from the neighbouring Arab town to fly the Israeli flag proudly at their municipal stadium.

From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month