A Palestinian playing for Israel’s most racist club?

Andy Newman


The reports that Abbas Suan, Palestinian star of the Israeli Arab side, Bnei Sakhnin, might sign for the notoriously racist side Betar Jerusalem are extraordinary! And to be honest, it is unlikely to happen! One of several racist fans demonstrating at a training sessions told the Ynet news service, “I don’t care if I have to stay in Jail for 40 years, there is no way [they] will bring Arab players to Betar”

Of course it is only as recently as 1989 when Glasgow Rangers were prepared to sign a player known to be a Roman Catholic, and there are only 4 Asian professional footballers in the whole of the UK, and just 10 more coming up through the youth academies – so racism is not a feature unique to Israeli sport. However, Israel is an Apartheid state based upon systematic discrimination against Arabs, and perpetual warfare against the Palestinians: so racism in Israeli sport is a much more serious matter.

As I have reported before,  (click hereextreme racism against Arabs regularly exhibits itself among Israeli sports fans. Despite scoring a spectacular 91st minute equaliser for Israel in a world cup qualifier against Ireland in March, when Abbas Suan played at Bekar’s stadium only a few days later he was greeted with banners proclaiming “Suan, you don’t represent us”. According to the Independent, Bekar fans regularly chant: “No Arabs, No terror”, whenever an Arab player has the ball.

The Israeli liberal paper Haaretz reported in June: “A report by the New Israel Fund says that Betar Jerusalem fans lead the league on the racism and violence index, and that at one game between Betar and Bnei Sakhnin there was unusually poisonous chanting of slogans like "Baruch Goldstein loves you all" and "Kahane lives."” (Baruch Goldsten carried out a massacre of 29 Arabs in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in 1994, and Kahane is a terrorist oragniasation (banned in Israel) founded by American Rabbi Meir David Kahane, that believes in the violent elimination of Arabs from Israel, including the 1.4 million Arabs who have Israeli citizenship)


The purchase of Betar Jerusalem

Our story really starts with the purchase of the Jerusalem club by Russian millionaire, Arkadi Gaidamak, in the same way that British clubs Hearts and Chelsea have attracted the attentions of Russian money.

Now Gaidamak is an interesting character. In 2000, the French put out an international warrant for his arrest in connection with the Angolan arms-for-oil scandal, for which the son of former French President Francois Mitterrand was briefly jailed on charges of receiving kickbacks from Gaidamak business partner Pierre Falcone. Gaidamak and Falcone allegedly arranged for shipments of Russian arms that were to have been paid for with Angolan oil contracts. There was an international ban on weapon sales to Angola at the time. In fact Gaidamak has always maintained that the oil-for-arms deal and his involvement in it was a legitimate transaction between the governments of Angola and Russia. Maybe it was.

Having led a camera-shy and reclusive past, Gaidamak has suddenly become very high profile. Not only has he bought top Israeli club Bekar Jerusalem, last month has also bought the liberal and critical Russian paper Moskovskiye Novosti, which he has announced he intends to turn into a paper supporting Vladimir Putin’s government (he has also purchased the English edition, Moscow News, and silencing one of the critical voices accessible to non-Russian speakers is a considerable favour to Putin). Gaidamak also gets about a bit and allegedly has French, Canadian, Israeli and Angolan passports, as well as his original Russian citizenship. As the local newspaper of the small Israeli town where he lives commented: “in one day [he] simply moved from the crime pages to the sport pages."”

One might speculate that some of those who made vast fortunes out of the collapse of the Soviet Union may have taken some unethical or even illegal shortcuts. If a mafia millionaire wanted to launder their money of course they would attract a lot of regulatory scrutiny if they sought to take over a bank, or a manufacturing company in the West. But imagine if they bought a major football club in London, or Scotland, or Israel first, and became a household name before they spread their commercial empire. Might they get away with that?

The French media very widely reported the extreme racism at Bekar when Gaidamak recently brought top French coach Luis Fernandez to the club. So the sudden moves by the Russian millionaire to root out racism at Bekar may be damage limitation to his own reputation. In any event, Gaidamak is reported to have recently given $500000 to the youth club of Arab team, Sakharin, which is where the wheeze of signing Abbas Suan is reported to have come up.

Bottom-of-the-table Bnai Sakhnin, who have both local Arab and Jewish players in their team as well as a few foreign imports, are in their third straight season in Israel's top flight. They became the first Arab side to play in a European club competition when they competed in the UEFA Cup in 2004 after their historic Israeli State Cup victory the same year. However, they struggle against regular institutional discrimination, as well as lack of money. In October this year, Sakhnin asked that their kick offs should be delayed one hour in order that their players would not have to break their Ramadan fast. The Israeli league refused to compromise, and 7 of the footballers ate early just to be ready. Afterwards Suan and another player drove to the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine, to pray for atonement for breaking the fast. "I hope Allah will forgive me. … I have represented the state and the national team in the most respectful way, but unfortunately the majority continues to ignore us," Suan told the Israeli daily, Maariv.

Up until recently Sakhnin did not even have a proper ground. The municipality ran out of money while rebuilding it to conform to Premier League standards and they had to play home games at other grounds. However, the Qatari government has just paid $6 million allowing the stadium to be completed. Times are still tough for the club though, who now have their third coach, Michael Kadosh, in the space of less than a year. Khadosh has warned that lack of pre-season preparation and strike power is likely to mean inevitable relegation, though fans are hoping for the return of Brazilian striker Gabriel Lima who was instrumental in the club's cup success in 2004.

Significantly, Bnai Sakhnin just won their first match of the season, in their new Doha stadium, against the galacticos of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the most expensive team ever assembled in Israel. The scorer of the only goal, Yaniv Abergil, summed it up: “It was the triumph of the poor over the rich. We showed Tel Aviv who's the boss at the Doha Stadium."