From across the divide, a united team offers hope for the Middle East

Tomorrow, the first Arab team to win the Israeli National Cup play Newcastle United. Robert Tait reports on an unlikely group of heroes
Click to follow

The players of Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin FC are used to staring humility in the face. At the end of a hard-fought 90 minutes or a gruelling training session, some of them can be seen kneeling in Islamic prayer, using red and white Diadora sports towels as makeshift mats. They don't have their own stadium and neither do they possess proper training facilities.

The players of Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin FC are used to staring humility in the face. At the end of a hard-fought 90 minutes or a gruelling training session, some of them can be seen kneeling in Islamic prayer, using red and white Diadora sports towels as makeshift mats. They don't have their own stadium and neither do they possess proper training facilities.

Tomorrow night, this collection of full and part-time professionals from Israel's Premier League will step into an arena that will put their humble circumstances into sharp relief. In the gleaming modernity of the 52,000-capacity St James's Park, Bnei Sakhnin will take on the might of Newcastle United in the third round of the Uefa Cup.

For Newcastle's fans and highly paid array of international stars, it may be little more than a routine tie against an unglamorous opposition. But for Sakhnin, the match will be an unprecedented opportunity to bask in the international spotlight.

Several thousand of the team's followers will travel from Sakhnin - a relatively poor Arab town of 25,000 inhabitants in Upper Galilee - to Tyneside to lend support to a cause that has come to symbolise something bigger than football. To these fans and to Arabs throughout Israel, tomorrow's game is no ordinary sporting occasion.

Bnei Sakhnin's foray into the heady territory of Europe's footballing elite has been made possible by its historic achievement in becoming the first Arab club to win Israel's National Cup last season. Playing in front of 38,000 people, the vast majority of them Arabs, at the national stadium in Tel Aviv, the team beat Hapoel Haifa 4-1 in the final in May.

In a stadium festooned with Star of David flags, the national emblem of Israel, the team captain, Abbas Suwan, an Arab and devout Muslim, received the trophy from Israel's President, Moshe Katzav, the highest elected official in the Jewish state. Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister - regarded by many Arabs as a natural enemy - telephoned the club's president, Mazen Ghenaim, to offer congratulations.

Having negotiated their way past Partizana Tirana of Albania in the last round, Bnei Sakhnin's players find themselves preparing for a clash which, in football terms, is as romantic as it is unequal. While Newcastle's dressing room has reportedly been the scene of ego-driven political in-fighting, Sakhnin's Arab and Jewish players have had to overcome the mutual mistrust endemic to a fractured society to pull together for a common cause.

Most of them are part-time - some are teachers - with the best-paid earning little more than £20,000 a year, a fraction of the sum that Newcastle stars such as Alan Shearer take home each week. The local authority, which owns the football club, is in the throes of a seemingly endless financial crisis that has led to chronic funding problems for the club. The situation is exacerbated by the reluctance of big Israeli sponsors to become associated with an Arab team. Only the Israeli mobile phone company, Cell Com - at the urging of a local Arab representative - has provided sponsorship.

As a consequence, the club lacks the funds for a stadium or proper training facilities. In contrast to the towering stands of St James's, Sakhnin's stadium is little more than a pile of rubble as it awaits re-development into a modern functioning venue. After the cup success, Mr Sharon pledged government funds to help re-build the stadium. But club administrators, pointing to a historical pattern of under-funding of Israeli-Arab projects, fear that the promise will never be fulfilled, thus leaving the project unfinished. They hope the Newcastle tie may attract enough publicity to woo a wealthy foreign benefactor. In the meantime, the team is forced to play its home games in Haifa, 30 miles away.

Along a rutted dirt track, past a fetid sewage lake and an overflowing rubbish dump laden with the carcasses of dogs, lies the training ground, a bumpy pitch on a swath of land lent by a local landowner. Beside it is a fertiliser patch, immediately identifiable by its smell, and several olive groves. On this site, in March 1976, six Arabs were shot dead in clashes with Israeli soldiers during demonstrations against government plans to expropriate Arab-owned land to build military installations. Every year, the event is marked by Arabs in a commemoration known as "land day".

For Jews and Arabs, Sakhnin's triumph meant two different things. To Israel's political establishment, eager to sell a positive message, it was an example of peaceful co-existence. After all, three of Sakhnin's four goals in the final were scored by Jewish players, while the coach, Eyal Lachman, is a Jew.

But to Israel's Arabs, Sakhnin's victory was a cathartic affirmation of ethnic pride and achievement in a land where they feel unwanted and discriminated against. Even among those normally uninterested in events on a football pitch, it was greeted with unrestrained joy and seen as proof that Arabs could rise above their perceived status as second-class citizens.

"It was the first time since 1948 [the year of Israel's independence, an event mourned by Arabs] that more than 30,000 Arabs gathered together to celebrate something rather than to protest against something," said Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Centre, a pressure group for Israel's Arab citizens. "For once they were dancing in the street and smiling and not demonstrating against discrimination."

Amid the jubilation, however, the relentless dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gave Sakhnin's achievement a tinge of bitter poignancy. The day after the team's victory, Israeli forces in the southern Gaza town of Rafah - purportedly trying to uncover weapons-smuggling tunnels - opened fire on a crowd demonstrating against conditions in the town's main refugee camp, which was being occupied by the army. Ten people, including several children, were killed when a helicopter gunship and a tank fired missiles at protesters.

The events in Rafah left their mark on Sakhnin's players, particularly the Arabs. "It is unfortunate that the two events came at the same time and we felt very sad that this was the case," Suwan, the captain, said. "While we were winning and having our greatest triumph, tragedy was happening to our brothers in Gaza."

For many Israeli Arabs, talk of peaceful co-existence rings hollow. Awareness that the Jewish majority suspect them as a fifth column for violent Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is deeply ingrained. While Palestinians who fled the war of 1948 were dispersed as refugees in neighbouring Arab countries, those who remained were forced to live under martial law during the early years of the Jewish state's existence. "The reality is that there is no co-existence in this state," said Mr Farah. "You have one group feeling they are discriminated against and the majority group which feels it is in control."

In October 2000, at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, 13 Arabs - including four in the Sakhnin area - were shot dead by Israeli security forces after disturbances in northern Israel. A government inquiry concluded that the police had been trigger happy and that Israeli-Arabs suffered widespread discrimination.

There are 1.2 million Arabs (nearly 20 per cent of the population) living in the internationally recognised borders of Israel. That is in addition to the four million or so living in the West Bank and Gaza, territories claimed by the Palestinians for an independent state. There are subtle distinctions between the two groups. Israel's Arabs, having grown up under the Israeli education system, speak fluent Hebrew and are accustomed to Israeli standards of free speech and democratic disputation. But in the mounting suspicion that has accompanied the past four years of violence, such nuances are overlooked.

Over the past year, the Shabak, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, as well as senior officials in the Sharon government, have emphasised the perceived terrorist threat from the Israeli-Arab community. Mr Sharon himself has talked of land swaps in the event of a peace settlement, whereby Israeli-Arab towns could be transferred to the new Palestinian state in exchange for incorporating heavily populated Jewish West Bank settlements into Israel. One fear haunting Israeli policy makers is that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza may one day drop their support for a two-state solution and instead unite with their Arab brethren in Israel to demand equal rights within a unitary state. Lower birth rates mean that, within a generation, Jews would be in the minority in such a country.

It is in the context of such fears that Israeli Arabs are regarded by Jews as potential enemies rather than fellow citizens. The hardline former transport minister, Avigdor Lieberman, summed up the hostility felt by many Israeli Jews when he said, in the aftermath of Sakhnin's cup triumph, that were it left to him, the team would be barred from Israeli competition and banished to the West Bank. "They would represent the other league, and they wouldn't be based in Sakhnin itself. Maybe they could call themselves Hapoel Nablus," he said.

Such expressions of bigotry may have soured the Sakhnin players in their hour of triumph, but they can hardly have come as a surprise. Last season, the team was widely criticised for its physical approach. One club chairman branded Sakhnin's players "animals", a common label of abuse applied by Israelis to Palestinians during the embittered climate of the intifada. Lachman - who admits he has had trouble persuading Jewish players to sign for the club - countered that he had instructed his players to be extra aggressive to win the respect of opponents used to treating an Arab team with disdain.

Worse prejudice has been encountered from opposition fans. The atmosphere was particularly charged with hatred last season when Sakhnin played away to Beitar Jerusalem. Beitar's fans chanted "Death to the Arabs" throughout. Sakhnin's Arab players were abused as "shaheedi" (Arabic for martyrs, a mocking reference to the Palestinian militants' term for suicide bombers). In other matches, chants have been heard against the prophet Mohamed.

Yet, amid this inter-communal enmity, a transcending esprit de corps has arisen between the Jewish and Arab players that has fostered a limited co-existence. "The Jewish players feel despair and frustration when they hear these things being said and they urge us to ignore it. They feel very awkward and ashamed about it," said Khaled Khalily, a 22-year-old Arab midfield player.

Avi Danan, 29, the team's Jewish libero and scorer of one of the goals in the cup final, says his Arab team-mates often visit him in his home town of Bet Sha'an, near the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank. Having joined the club three years ago at the urging of his brother, who was already in the team, he describes Bnei Sakhnin as "a family". Unfashionable as it is for a Jew to play for an Arab club, he says he is determined to end his career with Sakhnin.

"You want to see peace? Well just look out there on the grass," Danan says, while preparing to start a training set-up with a group of team-mates that includes, besides Jews and Arabs, a Zimbabwean, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, a Cameroonian, a Hungarian and a player for Congo. "For us it's normal that we are friends. There are a few cases in which we will talk about politics - the times when there are bombs on buses or when kids get killed in Gaza." But searching for a metaphor to emphasise the spirit of shared values and goals, he goes on: "Abbas might go the mosque and me to the synagogue, but together we are praying to God for the success of the team."

For Lachman, the Jewish coach, the diversity of the team is the key to its success. "For sure it's special because of the problems in society between Jews and Arabs, but this team proves that the relationship improves automatically when you don't talk about it," he says. "Nobody talks or thinks about the relationship or the differences and maybe this is the secret of the team. I always tell my players, enjoy the differences, difference is something good and beautiful.

"I always remember a quote I once read in a newspaper from a French philosopher who wrote that the cognitive situation is independent of the political situation."

It is a statement of mind over matter that the players hope may just enable them to rise above their station once more and confound Shearer and Co.