The Socialist Unity Network

Football and the Palestinians

Andy Newman


The recent UEFA cup match between the Israeli team Bnei Sakhnin and Newcastle United at St James Park throws an interesting light upon Israeli society and the relationship between Israel and the West. The Israeli team were woefully bad, and their performance summed up by goalkeeper, Energy Murambadoro, falling over and injuring himself while throwing the ball out. Nevertheless the remarkable thing about the team is that it was there at all.

Firstly given the physical location of Israel, it is reasonable to question why the Israeli Football Association is a member of UEFA, while the Lebanese FA and Palestinian FS are members of the Asian Football Federation. The participation of Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest may also raise eyebrows for those with an eye for geography.

Actually this is less strange than it seems. Europe has always been a political rather than a geographical concept. The Eurasian land mass is a single continent, and what is more because it runs East to West and not South to North (unlike Africa) climate zones have aided not impeded the transfer of peoples, ideas and technology across the continent. For this reason there are Asiatic languages spoken in Europe (the Hungarians, Finns and Estonians), and until very recently significant German speaking populations in Asia.

Europe is a myth rooted in the ideology of Empire and scientific racism. It is therefore entirely appropriate that Israel, a settler colon, tied to the imperialist domination of the Middle East should be regarded as a European country. So the winner of the Israeli FA cup participates in the EUFA cup.

But the strangeness of Bnei Sakhnin does not end there, for this is not a typical Israeli team: they have 12 Arab, seven Jewish and four foreign players, as well as a Palestinian President and a Jewish coach. The town of Sakhnin is forever associated with the murder of six Arab Israelis by police during protests against land confiscation in 1976. The team trains at the end of a dirt road, on a pitch surrounded by olive groves, and must travel 30 km (19 miles) to Haifa for its home games, because they haven't the money to renovate their own stadium. They are representative of the 18% of Israel's population who are non-Jewish Arabs, over a million people who despite Israeli citizenship have less right than Jews.

So when Bnei Sakhnin beat Hapoel Haifa 4-1 in the State Cup final back in May there was jubilation amongst the Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the achievement brought "honour to the Palestinian people".

At the same time the Palestinian national football team has been doing well in the qualifying rounds for the 2006 Word Cup. In the first qualifiers, they beat Taipei 8-0 in February and more remarkably, they tied 1-1 with the much more experienced Iraqi team which finished fourth in the recent Athens Olympics. This is despite considerable obstacles. Not only do they have no home stadium to play in, but players from Gaza were prevented by the Israelis from going to Ismailia in Egypt where the team had a summer training camp to prepare for the qualifiers. The team was also unable to travel to Hungary for a two week training camp despite a FIFA intervention that belatedly released the Gaza players.

The prestige of their national team (only recognized by FIFA in 1998 and funded by private businessmen), is important to Palestinians. Faris Abu Shawish chairman of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) is reported in Al Ahram: "Not long ago, we were used to seeing the team lose. They would go to Egypt and lose 5-0, 6-0 or go to Qatar and lose, or go to Saudi Arabia and lose.  Then we went for the first time to the Pan-Arab Games in Jordan in 1999 and won the bronze medal. Nobody expected such a success. When the team returned, tens of thousands of people were waiting at the airport, shouting and singing. Since then, everybody has been following the national team. Even women, who usually don't care about football, watch our games on TV."

Bader Mekki, general-secretary of the PFA in Ramallah is also quoted by Al Ahram: "It is amazing to see the colours [of our flag] outside our land... It is also a great challenge for the Israelis and their checkpoints. We are saying, 'We are here, we can reach Spain, Chile, the whole world.'"

The political symbolism of the Palestinians competing in international sport is echoed by the significance of an Arab team representing Israel. Bnei Sakhnin's qualification for the UEFA cup was officially welcomed by Israeli Football Association chairman Itche Menachem who said the victory was a "bridge for peace and co-existence between our peoples... and a great celebration for Israeli soccer", however as the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported: "When Sakhnin arrives to most of their away games they hear chants like 'death to Arabs' and so on. Not in all of them, but in some. ... It's very, very far-fetched to say that it will make a real difference in the lives of Arab people in Israel."

The BBC quotes Sharon Mashdi who monitors racism in Israeli football for the New Israel Fund. "After the cup final the Betar Jerusalem fans put an advert on the Internet about the death of Israeli football," he says. "I think it's like what's happened in Israeli society - some percentage of the Jews don't like Arabs at all and don't want them here in this country".

Yoav Goren, of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the Arab team's success has been met with indifference and hostility among Israel's Jewish majority.  "Jewish companies don't sponsor Sakhnin. No-one from the Jewish business community said: 'Let's take Sakhnin and make it a symbol for peace, for living together'. ... Sakhnin has succeeded in a professional way, but in a social way it's been a failure."

This is not at all surprising given the degree of cultural paranoia in Israel. Not only is Israeli society founded upon religious discrimination, but also racism from the Western Ashkenazi Zionists against the Sephardic Jews of Arab origin. As the Israeli peace activist Yehudith Harel writes: "Since the foundation of the State of Israel there has existed long-standing and clearly institutionalised discrimination against oriental Arab Jews and Israeli Palestinians in the allocation of funds for education, job opportunities, land ownership, etc. It's true that Israeli Palestinians are more severely discriminated against, are even lower down the ladder, but the roots of this discrimination and its socio-economic outcomes are pretty much the same,.... The outcome of the Ashkenazi attitude towards oriental Jews, their Arab culture and traditions, including their specific stream of Judaism and Jewish identity, has had a strong negative political significance."

In particular, the Zionist left and Peace Now! activists are predominately Ashkenazis, derided as WASPs (White Ashkenazi Sons of Pioneers). Noam Chomsky has also pointed out that economic power in Israel is tightly controlled by Ashkenazis, often associated with liberal politics. This has led to the ironic situation described by Yehudith Harel: "The above process lead to antagonising the majority of Arab Jews against the predominantly Ashkenazi left and equally so against Palestinians and Arabs and their just cause, in support of which the left is united. It gradually pushed them into the arms of the political right and to "Arab-hating" positions. One can easily see that their hatred of the "Ashkenazi" left, conceived by many oriental Arab Jews as "Arab-lover", is a direct result of the above-described attitude of the Ashkenazi elites towards them."

So underneath the Apartheid discrimination between Jew and Palestinian, the class divisions in Israel also split Jews on ethnic lines. Sephardic Jews desperately cling to the difference in status they have over Israeli Arabs, with whom they share every aspect of their culture except religion. Israel is a state based upon hatred, suspicion and discrimination where the Jewish working class side strongly with the oppressor. In the same way, the two million strong French population in pre-independence Algeria included many workers: indeed according to Tony Cliff one million supported the communists in 1945, but almost all of them supported the continuation of colonial rule and the terror against the Algerian independence movement.

So the hope represented by a team of Jews and Arabs playing together to represent Israel against Newcastle United was a false hope. Israel has no appetite for reform. Jews and Arabs cannot live together in harmony while the Israeli flag is flying above them. There is only one hope, a secular Palestine including all the land from the banks of the river Jordan right to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. That can, in turn, only be achieved by a socialist solution across the Middle East with full rights for Jews, Kurds and all national minorities.


September 2004


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