What do you get when you mix national flags, violence, racism and politics, throw in a few flares and thousands of passionate fans in a stadium? The infamous Beitar – Sakhnin rivalry in Israel’s Ligat ha’Al.
Without an ounce of a doubt, it is one of the fiercest political rivalries in the world of football. A team representing the right wing and extremist Jewish groups on one hand while on the other you have a team whose allegiance is towards the Arab minorities who reside in a complicated and disputed reality.
When the two meet on the pitch, one can surely be treated to public disorder, blunt racism and violence.
Beitar Jerusalem and Ittihad Anbaa Sakhnin (Bnei Sakhnin to the west) met each other in a league match on Monday resulting in the Jerusalemites winning by a solitary goal. But as always, the day after the game tends to bring about the hype of the game and the rivalry in general, as the discussion directly turned into a political hearsay and ethnicity advancing well into the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Israeli minority’s position on the conflict.
When the two faced each other three months ago at Doha Stadium in Sakhnin, the security atmosphere within Israel was intense as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was revived with random attacks in Israel, followed by violent protests and clashes in the West Bank. Left and Right wing politicians were present, attempting to take advantage of the situation, and what may seem like adding fuel to the fire on the conflict in prime time television. This match was already labeled as one that would be ‘prone to riots.’
It definitely was.
Before every league home fixture of Beitar Jerusalem, the fans sing the Israeli anthem. And it was no different on Monday night in Petah Tikva, where the match was held due to Beitar´s ban from its home stadium in Jerusalem, thanks to consistent racism from fans. But as the anthem started, Sakhnin fans began to jeer and sang, “بالروح, بالدم, نفديك الاقسى” – “In spirit and blood we’ll redeem Al-Aqsa”. Furthermore, the Palestinian flag was waved. The match was ignited.
Playing the national anthem in an official League game is not assigned by the Israeli state regulations, however, at the same time it is not prohibited. In the case of Beitar’s tradition, the authorities, somehow, neglected the fact.
Seven minutes into the game, Sakhnin fans threw two flares onto the pitch, one of which landed by the linesman. At that moment, Beitar fans responded with their Arsenal of racist songs, including insults to the Prophet Muhammad and Arab-Israeli parliament member Ahmad Tibi.
Consequently, the police and security officials within the stadium arrested four individuals leaving out dozens of problematic fans from both sides. It was obvious at an early stage of the match; football was secondary to politics.
Beitar’s win, thanks to a first half goal courtesy of Lidor Cohen helped maintain the club’s attempt to qualify for a sting at either of Europe’s two continental tournaments. However, that feat was not as newsworthy as was the post-match reactions. Neither was the fact that Sakhnin were doomed to battle against relegation this season was any importance.
Instead of football, politics, nationalism, racism and loyalty were argued in the parliament hall, by the sports channels and across social media.
The various reactions of the fans’, emphasizing the conflict, represented the varied opinions that exist within the Israeli and Arab communities.
Right wing Beitar’s fans accused the Sakhninies for aggravating them by demonstrating Palestinian flags, and in degrading the Israeli anthem and national symbols.
“After the terror attack occurred the day before the match, when a Palestinian stabbed a pregnant woman in front six of her children, I wanted Beitar to win it. I wanted it badly,” as one Beitar fan had mentioned to me, only a few minutes after the match.
Sakhnin fans were mocking the fact that the Israeli anthem, which they do not identify with, was played before the match and call it a provocation itself. In general, they were primarily disappointed about the result of the match, making it easier for them to fall back into their Muslim-Palestinian identity infront of Beitar fans.
“A victory over Beitar is always a must. But the problem now is that we are deep in the mud of relegation battle. I am looking further, it is o.k to lose to Beitar which are a better team, but Sakhnin must stay in the Premier League”, concluded Adham, a Sakhnini fan.
As for the neutral, and for fans from both sides that do not align themselves with club fanatics, the situation seemed depressing. These political issues taking over the country’s football, twice a season or more ends up harming the atmosphere keeping many away from the stadiums.
“We are tired with the whole rivalry as keeps me out of attending the match. I use to bring my kids to the match few years ago, but today it is not even an option”, testified a veteran fan of Beitar Jerusalem.
As for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Sakhnin is the ultimate representative of the Palestinian struggle inside the state of Israel.
A football fan of Shabab Al-Khaleel was quoted as saying, “Look, for us in Hebron it does not make a difference if Sakhnin is winning or losing. The fact that few thousand people sang in the name of Al-Aqsa and waved the Palestinian flag is our victory. Of course, a win is better, but playing football in the Israeli Premier League, and especially against Beitar, Sakhnin is keeping the Palestinian cause alive in Israel.”
The Israeli Football Association declared to take both clubs to trail for their crowd behavior, respectively – Sakhnin for fan disturbances in aggravated circumstances, and inappropriate behavior of a crowd of fans; and Beitar for pitch invading, racial chants and fan disturbances.
In response, Beitar announced that if any charges will be activated against them, they will not show up for next match. Blaming the IFA and the League Commissioners for the mess considering the huge sum invested on match day security detail.
Sakhnin’s management had declared on Wednesday that they are willing to discuss any solution for the situation between both the two set of fans.
“The situation of thousands people cursing and chanting in racism is absurd, and you cannot judge Sakhnin fans for their reaction. We are willing to discuss any solution that will bring peace between the sides, and help the Israeli football be a happier society”, underlined the official statement.
Israeli Culture and Sports Minister, Mrs. Regev, decided to focus on Sakhnin fans. “Sakhnin fans’ behavior is intolerable and cannot be ignored. No country in the world would allow a group of football fans degrade the national anthem and symbols without being punished that severely.”
“Yallah ya Beitar” sang the yellow stand of Beitar after the final whistle. Ironically, there was a little humor involved. Yallah being an Arabic word and with all the hostility, both fans are not so different after all.
Beitar Jerusalem and Abnaa Sakhnin is a hot rivalry indeed. But even so, it does not fade into the oblivion. The focus is not about football, but more so that it only helps in promoting the agendas of extremists’ from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The politicians are playing have a role to play, flirting with incitement, encouraging violence, while the officials struggle to cope with incidents and subsequently injured fans.