A sporting chance for peace

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Maybe it's a sign of the global media's inability to handle contradictory messages from the same region at once, but the little town of Sakhnin in the Galilee would be a great deal better known internationally if it had not been for a cruel accident of timing. For on the very day back in May that the world's headlines were dominated by the killing of 10 demonstrators in Rafah, 150 miles to the south, the 35,000 residents of Sakhnin were celebrating the victory of their football team the previous night in Israel's equivalent of the FA Cup. And the significance of Sakhnin's 4-1 victory over Hapoel Haifa went way beyond the giant-killing triumph it undoubtedly was. It's not just that Sakhnin must be the poorest club to qualify for the next Uefa Cup contest - with scarcely a blade of grass on its somewhat lopsided pitch. It is also the first club from an Arab town to win the cup since Israel's foundation in 1948. Thirteen members of the full squad - like a large majority of the fans - are Israeli Arabs, in

Maybe it's a sign of the global media's inability to handle contradictory messages from the same region at once, but the little town of Sakhnin in the Galilee would be a great deal better known internationally if it had not been for a cruel accident of timing. For on the very day back in May that the world's headlines were dominated by the killing of 10 demonstrators in Rafah, 150 miles to the south, the 35,000 residents of Sakhnin were celebrating the victory of their football team the previous night in Israel's equivalent of the FA Cup. And the significance of Sakhnin's 4-1 victory over Hapoel Haifa went way beyond the giant-killing triumph it undoubtedly was. It's not just that Sakhnin must be the poorest club to qualify for the next Uefa Cup contest - with scarcely a blade of grass on its somewhat lopsided pitch. It is also the first club from an Arab town to win the cup since Israel's foundation in 1948. Thirteen members of the full squad - like a large majority of the fans - are Israeli Arabs, including the captain, Abbas Suan, who was presented with the cup by Israel's President Moshe Katsav.

Yet Sakhnin's climb to the top is also a story about co-operation. As it happens, seven members of the squad are Israeli Jews, including the club's striker, Lior Assulin, who scored two of the winning goals in the final. With a fair sprinkling of Arabs also now playing in Israeli teams, football seems to cross what the world sees as its most intractable ethnic division with relative ease. That shouldn't be sentimentalised. The fans of Betar Jerusalem, for example, which has a long association with right-wing politics, have just been awarded "top honours" by the New Israel Fund, a body fostering good relations between Jews and Arabs, for being the most racist and unruly in Israeli football. (Most of the top football clubs are affiliated either to Betar - a right-wing youth movement linked with the Likud party, or Hapoel, the Labour equivalent.) To its credit, the State Prosecutor's Office has just arraigned six fans for chanting "Death to Arabs" during games, and threatens to bring more before the courts.

Which makes the local derbies between Betar's team in the national Coca Cola five-a-side competition and its Jerusalem arch-rival, Hapoel Peace Jerusalem all the more electric. The "Peace Team", as it is less formally known, sets out with the deliberate object of mixing Jewish and Palestinian players in roughly equal numbers - and has had a conspicuous record of success in "futsal" as the fast-moving game of indoor mini-soccer is known to its increasing numbers of fans. It has won the national league two years running - the result of an exceptional motivation which it's hard to separate entirely from the clear message the team is sending out. And it is top of the league yet again - just one point ahead of its arch rivals Betar.

If it hadn't been for football, it's unlikely that Avi Katif, a 28-year-old Jewish teacher from Beersheeva, and Ala'a Awad, a 21-year-old Palestinian waiter from East Jerusalem, would have met, let alone become friends. Like all their team mates they would rather talk sport than politics; but if you ask them at their weekly training session how important it is to them to be playing in a team made up of both Jews and Arabs they chorus unhesitatingly: "It's very important" and then laugh at how they echo each other. "I must like playing in this team. I come all the way to Jerusalem from Beersheeva to train every week and that means getting home around midnight," Katif says. His family were surprised at first that he was playing in a team with Arabs, but now see the point. Awad says his family has also been supportive. "Whenever I get back from a game everyone wants to know if we won," he says.

There are two coaches, Israeli Sami Malka, and Khadr Abed, a former Palestinian team captain. As an adviser to the team, Ali Ottman, a former top player in Hapoel Jerusalem's first team and the first Palestinian to play in top- level Israeli football - at a time when hostile crowds used to shout "Fatah" and "Arafat" every time he got the ball - is passionate about what sport can do in fostering relations between Jews and Arabs. "Sport is a way that people can learn to live with each other," he says. "Someone will go home and say, 'the Palestinian I play with isn't such a bad guy' - or the other way round."

I HAVE been sensitised to the possibility of rabies here ever since my predecessor, Justin Huggler, persuaded me to seek medical advice after I was bitten by a small kitten I had rescued on the main Tel Aviv-to-Haifa highway, at the urging of a Palestinian taxi driver a great deal more sentimental about animals than I am. Embarrassed, I visited A&E at the city's Hadassa Hospital which is all too used to dealing with real - and horrific - emergencies. Yet the duty houseman could not have been more solicitous - swiftly referring me to the city's public-health officer, who decided that jabs would not be necessary.

I remembered this when a colleague, visiting The Independent's apartment for a goodbye drink with Justin, mistakenly went into the yard of the house next door. She failed to notice the neighbour's dog until it had leapt forward and sunk its teeth into her arm. The following morning, I remonstrated with my extremely friendly neighbour. At first she failed to accept that it could have happened. Then she assured me that the dog had had been fully inoculated against rabies. Then she added with a precision which has a uniquely - and appealingly - Israeli ring about it: "I don't feel guilty about this, but I do feel bad about it."

FINKS, THE little bar-restaurant on the corner of King George Street, dating back to the British mandate is, sadly, no longer the journalists' hangout it used to be. In the Seventies, the then-proprietor David Rothschild once politely turned down a booking from Henry Kissinger on the grounds that he was not going to empty the restaurant of his regular customers to accommodate the great man's secret-service men. But it is flourishing again thanks to an astute decision taken last year - to go kosher - and modern orthodox families are now flocking to it. Secular Jerusalemites may complain that it's another sign that the city is becoming steadily more religious - but that's business.

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