At the end of last season, the chairmen of the Palestinian clubs had a lot to rethink. They were unhappy with the decision a year before by Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, to forbid the teams to sign foreign or Israeli Arab players. The 10 teams belonging to the Palestinian league demanded a change, arguing that there wasn't enough local talent.
"We were afraid the Israeli Arabs would take the place of local talent," says Mounir Bul, sports editor of the daily Al-Quds, "but the regulations were changed this season and the league has been virtually flooded by players from the Arab community in Israel. Players called their friends and told them about the big money here; there's now a chance for them to play for the Palestinian national team. We have about 10 national team players from Israel, and they receive a lot of press. The league has become very attractive in general for players from the Arab community."
Thus, two months after the PFA changed its policy, more than 30 players from Israel have been signed by the 10 teams, which will play three rounds of matches after the season officially opens on September 12, and will try to dethrone Al-Amari, coached by ex-Hapoel Haifa striker Hisham Zoabi.
"The moment the regulations were changed players from Israel started to come in," says Samir Issa, the coach of Shabab al-Khalil. "They're treated as stars, they're tempted by double the amounts of money they made in Israel, and they get the chance to be called up to the national team. None of them can make it to the Israeli national team. There's huge interest and hype surrounding our league - lots of international media interest, thousands of fans in the stands. It's very very tempting."
This will be the third season since Palestinian soccer turned professional. Huge investments, sponsors, new stadiums and burgeoning academies for young players have guaranteed that that fans show up. Actually, in the very beginning the Palestinian FA allowed two foreign or Israeli players on each team, but then as mentioned, in the second season, that decision was reversed in order to allow local talent to develop. This year, foreign players aren't allowed to play, but Israeli Palestinians are again welcome.
Most of the Arab Israeli players have indeed heard about the PFA teams from friends who already play there or from coaches, some of whom have also come from Israel. "Jaber Mukhtar's coach, Iob Jaber, asked me to join," says Alla Rabiya of Taibeh. "Now I earn three times as much as I did in Israel. Ten-thousand fans come to watch each game, the stadiums are very good and the fans are enthusiastic. Where would I find such conditions in the third or second Israeli league? Salaries are paid on time, some of the players even get half the contract money in advance. Playing here I can support my family with dignity."
Murad Alyan, from Beit Safafa joined Hilal al-Quds two years ago, straight from Beitar Shimshon, a year after scoring the equalizer against Hapoel Tel Aviv in the semi-finals of the Israeli federation cup.
"The offer I received was very tempting," Alyan recalls, "twice as much as I made before. In the beginning I wasn't sure it was the right move, because there's no way back to Israeli soccer, especially after you earn such sums. Sometimes we have problems at the roadblocks with the long lines there, but it's still worth it."
Meanwhile, none of the most famous Arab Israeli players have come to the Palestinian league, but as time passes, there is hope that players such as Wiyam Amashe and Ali Otman will join. For the time being the league teams are content with Hamoudi Kayal, who played for Hapoel Haifa, Hakoach Amidar and Hapoel Kfar Sava, and currently plays for Al-Amari.
"Players make more money here than in the second league in Israel," says Hisham Zoabi. "Even more important - the money is paid on time, without having to ask again and again. The financial state of Arab clubs in Israel is horrible, there's hardly any money. The Palestinian league has opened new opportunities for a lot of players."
Two years in the league has made Kayal a celebrity in the Palestinian Authority. "There's a severe economic problem in the second league in Israel," he says, "and if we have a better option, then why not? And even more important than the money is the way we're honored here."
Kayal may be joined next season by a relative of his, Luab Kayal, who played for Bnei Sakhnin last season. Zoabi is trying to persuade him to come, but Luab isn't sure. "Their league is developing very well," he says. "There's a lot of enthusiasm and sometimes hundreds of fans come to support the players at training sessions. The level of soccer is more or less like the mid-table teams of the second league, but the salaries are much higher. I'll try to find a team in the Premier League in Israel, but if it doesn't work out, I'll seriously consider a move to the Palestinian league."
Like all soccer associations the PFA is also subject to FIFA rules, but it seems that political reality is sometimes even more powerful. The PFA isn't interested in any formal ties with the Israeli Football Federation, meaning that the Palestinian clubs don't contact the Israeli clubs or IFA when signing a player. A transfer without red-tape often results.
"There no such thing as a release form or transfer form," says coach Issa. "Players who join clubs in the Palestinian league are issued a new card, and are actually erased from the Israeli records, as with players who retire. Rajoub doesn't want any contact with the IFA for political reasons, so the clubs don't have any official ties either. They just talk directly to the player and offer him a contract, as if the Israeli club doesn't exist."
Lately Amir Abu Nil of Hapoel Haifa was offered a $100,000 annual contract with Shabab al-Khalil. His contract with Haifa would have been a problem had the talks succeeded. Finally, Abu Nil decided to stay put.
"I received a pretty decent offer," he explains. "I understood that if I join the Palestinian club, I won't need Haifa's agreement. But after consideration I decided to stay with Hapoel."
Abu Nil might have made the right professional decision, but financially he came up short. On top of that, he probably would have been immediately called up to the Palestinian national team, as was the case of Mohammed Jalal from, who played for Hapoel Petah Tikva, but moved to Shabab al-Khalil."I would have never made it to the Israeli national team," Jalal says, "and it's a great honor for me to play for Palestine. You could say I came here for the money, but stayed because of the status. It's something I could never have achieved in Israel. I have an apartment in Hebron, a nice salary, and I'm treated like a star. I feel like the Palestinian Yossi Benayoun."
Joining the young, developing Palestinian league is not just a matter of money or status. Amir Abu Arar of Arara played last season for Hapoel Kfar Sava, and signed this summer for Dahariya. Coach Said Taher, originally from Umm al-Fahm, offered him a $80,000 contract.
"I was amazed by what I saw," Abu Arar says. "People here are so enthusiastic about soccer, and the money is great. I was also attracted by the possibility of continuing my studies while playing, which wasn't a realistic possibility when I played in Israel."
On the other side of the separation fence, one can sense the frustration, however. The Arab clubs are losing the finest players without being able to fight back. The heads of the clubs awoke one day to discover that players disappeared without a transfer fee or proper release form. In some cases players released themselves from their Israeli team with payment they had received from the Palestinian teams.
"The IFA must intervene," declares Ibrahim Kenani, coach and chairman of Bnei Jadida. "The teams in the Arab community will fall apart. The players prefer to leave because we can't pay the sums they get in the Palestinian league. I myself would go and coach there, but there is something in this story that smells bad. Players get paid salaries that are 10 times their worth."
Even officials in the PFA know this is a temporary situation, and the financial heyday might soon pass. "It very well might burst like a bubble," Issa admits, "and many clubs might collapse all of a sudden."