- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

SAKHNIN, Israel — A Cinderella soccer team from this impoverished Arab town has won the Israeli Cup championship, giving Jews and Arabs a rare opportunity to celebrate together.

Arab players from the Bnei Sakhnin club — so poor that it doesn’t even have a stadium — circled the field waving the blue-and-white Israeli flag after their 4-1 victory, which will let them represent the country in a European championship tourney.

Jews responded in kind. “Way to go, Sakhnin,” read the front-page headline in the newspaper Ma’ariv yesterday, transliterating an Arabic toast into Hebrew.

As Bnei Sakhnin’s players and managers raised the silver trophy on the grass of Israel’s national stadium, about 25,000 Israeli-Arab fans went wild, several fainting. Tens of thousands more celebrated in the streets and at road junctions countrywide.

“I’ve never felt so much intimacy between Jews and Arabs in the country as I felt yesterday,” said Bassam Jaber, a journalist at the Israeli-Arab weekly paper Panorama said on Israel Radio.

“I’m happy we lost to an Arab team,” agreed a smiling supporter of the defeated Hapoel Haifa team, Uri Hoenig, 24. “I hope it will improve our society.”

Although the Sakhnin team represents an all-Arab town and has 10 Arab players, its coach is Jewish, as are six of the players; four of the players are from abroad.

Ties between Jews and the country’s 20 percent Arab minority have been severely strained by the Palestinian uprising and the killing of Israeli Arabs by police during solidarity demonstrations.

Though television pictures yesterday of wounded Palestinians in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah brought a sobering dose of reality to fans at Sakhnin’s Abu Ali restaurant, wide grins quickly returned when the chairman of the victorious soccer club appeared on the screen in a nationally televised interview.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon placed a congratulatory call to the club, promising funds to build a soccer stadium, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat telephoned the town’s mayor.

“This is a historic day. It’s an achievement that we won the cup,” said Ghazan Abu Rayah, a spokesman for the Sakhnin municipality. “This means that we can succeed in all fields, not only on the sports field.”

Nestled in the slopes of the lower Galilee, the town of 24,000 was the site of the killing of six Israeli Arabs in 1976 during demonstrations against the confiscation of locally owned farmland by the government.

The incident is marked annually by Israeli Arabs as “Land Day,” an observance viewed by Israeli Jews as a threatening expression of Palestinian nationalism.

Tens of thousands of fans feted the team yesterday morning in a traffic circle named “Martyrs’ Square” after two residents of the town who were killed by Israeli forces during an October 2000 demonstration.

But Mr. Abu Rayah said Israeli Arabs hoped that the championship would serve as a symbol of healing for Jews and Arabs.

“Maybe through soccer the Jews will get to know us better. We have a lot of things in common, but because of the conflict we don’t see them,” he said.

“I hope the Israeli government will be able to listen to our needs and our dreams.”

For all the funds lacking to close the open sewage pipes in Sakhnin, the municipality isn’t short on vision. Mr. Abu Rayah is hoping that the victory will attract state subsidies for a local college and government buildings.

But for the team, the most immediate concern is money to build a proper soccer stadium. Although Mr. Sharon pledged about $666,000, the team officials estimated the cost at more than $2 million.

Abraham Rabinovich in Israel contributed to this report.

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