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Nidal Mohammad Watad

Ministers demand red card for Arab-Israeli football club

Abna Sakhnin are Israel's leading Arab team (Al-Araby)

Date of publication: 19 October, 2014

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Abna Sakhnin FC is attracting fresh controversy following two commemorative plaques at their home stadium in Galilee.
As the only Arab club in the Israeli Premier League (IFA), Abna Sakhnin represents some 1.7 million Palestinian-Israeli citizens in the testosterone-fuelled landscape that is Israeli football. With huge divides between Arabs and Jews on and off the football pitch, controversy has become just a part of life for the club, known as Bnei Sakhnin in Hebrew.
 
The latest dispute, however, has attracted the ire of senior ministers in the Israeli government - who have demanded that the IFA take disciplinary action against Abna Sakhnin, following the team's public recognition of two figures who are hugely controversial in Israel.

Azmi Bishara, a former Knesset member, political commentator, and publisher of al-Araby al-Jadeed, secured a $2 million donation from Qatar to help fund the construction of the club's 8,500 seat Doha Stadium in the Galilee city of Sakhnin. As a gesture of appreciation, Qatar's leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and Bishara are both honoured with two commemorative plaques at the stadium.

Politics and football 

The Gulf state has allegedly supported Palestinian resistance groups at war with Israel. Furthermore, Doha has been under fresh scrutiny from the Israeli media following accusations regarding Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar's donation of $1 billion to help rebuild Gaza also attracted Israeli anger, as did an initiative by Doha to bring about a ceasefire to end Israeli attacks on Gaza - which Israeli analysts say would have protected the interests of armed Palestinian groups. 
      I recommend that the team's management consider moving and playing in the Palestinian or Qatari league
- Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman
 
Bishara, originally from the Arab city of Nazareth but now based in Qatar, founded the Arab-Israeli Balad party, influenced by anti-Zionist and pan-Arabist ideas. Unsurprisingly, this has led to the party being held in suspicion by many non-Arabs in Israel. After being questioned by police on allegations of aiding Hezbollah and passing information to the group - an allegation Bishara has always strongly refuted - he left Israel and tendered his resignation as a Knesset member at the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Anti-Abna Sakhnin campaign 

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Limor Livnat, minister of culture and sport, have both called for sanctions against Abna Sakhnin, with a campaign against the Arab club taken up with gusto by Israeli media.
 
On his Facebook account, in addition to demanding sanctions and restrictive measures against Abna Sakhnin, Lieberman also called for the team to be kicked out of the Israeli Premier League. 
      We just wanted to thank the people who helped us raise money to support the team.
- Mohammed Abu Yunes, Abna Sakhnin club chairman


"I recommend that the team's management consider moving and playing in the Palestinian or Qatari league," Yediot Ahronoth reported Lieberman as saying.
 
Livnat, meanwhile, told the newspaper that the team had "crossed a red line" and that Israel's Football Association should take "strict measures" against the team.
 
Abna Sakhnin have meanwhile played down the furore. 

"A big fuss is being made out of nothing," said club chairman Mohammed Abu Yunes. "We just wanted to thank the people who helped us raise money to support the team. What do they want from us? The [Israeli] establishment doesn't give us money, so why shouldn't we raise money overseas?"
 
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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