"Ali isn't a soccer player - he's a soccer star," gushes Hapoel Haifa coach Tal Banin, who decided to sign up Ali Khatib to his team a few weeks ago. A 23-year-old offensive midfielder, Khatib, a Christian from Nazareth, played until five years ago on Hapoel Haifa's youth team. Following that, he played in a few games in one of the minor Israeli leagues and then, for three years, in the Palestinian Premier League. Although he was an outstanding player on the Palestinian national team, the Israeli media have never bothered to mention his impressive skills.
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Banin - arguably one of the greatest soccer players Israel ever had - coaches the team that he joined in his youth, which was at rock-bottom and has now improved its standing. He has begun looking for players capable of breathing a new fighting spirit into Hapoel Haifa.
"I asked around about any players who had been released from their contracts," explains Banin. "Someone told me about Khatib. After making a few inquiries, I decided to give him a tryout. Within 10 - no, five - minutes, I knew he was just what our team needed."
In his first two games with Hapoel Haifa, Khatib scored three goals, all of them achieved with magnificent, long-distance kicks.
"He has everything," says Banin. "Not just a good technique and not just excellent kicking and passing, but most importantly, he has character and personality. And what's more, he's fearless. He's a 'hungry' player and knows how to appreciate the fact that he is great on the field."
Until a few weeks ago, Khatib played for Jabal Mukkaber, in East Jerusalem. The managers of that Palestinian team claim he signed a contract that expires in another three-and-a-half years. They filed an appeal in the Tel Aviv District Court contesting the legitimacy of the agreement Khatib signed with the Haifa club, but the appeal was denied. Now they intend to appeal to FIFA, the international soccer federation, in Switzerland.
"We have hired a highly experienced Israeli lawyer, who has told us that we have an open-and-shut case," says Jabal Mukkaber coach Samir Issa.
A Haifa native, Issa has coached various Arab clubs playing in Israel's minor leagues, such as Hapoel Umm al-Fahm, Ironi Umm al-Fahm and Ahva Arabeh; he himself brought Khatib into the Palestinian soccer league three years ago.
"He is a very talented player," Issa explains, "but when he joined our team, nobody had heard of him and nobody really wanted him. He became a real soccer player with Jabal Mukkaber; he built himself up as a professional in the Palestinian league. When he joined the Palestinian national team, people began to take notice of him. Khatib owes a lot to Palestinian soccer and to the club where he earned a living for three whole years. Unfortunately, he is displaying a lot of ingratitude. He left us like a thief in the night, although he had a signed contract with a Palestinian soccer club. This is highly unacceptable behavior."
For his part, Khatib denies he has a contract with the Palestinian soccer club: "If I were signed with them, I wouldn't have any problem admitting that fact. But I have no contract with them. After I transferred to Haifa, people forged my signature to prove that I had signed a contract with Jabal Mukkaber."
Issa retorts with an ironic smile: "If he didn't have a contract, how does one account for the fact that he played with us? Does that mean that he agreed to play for our club without a contract?"
For his part, Ismail Serour, president of the Jabal Mukkaber soccer club, claims Hapoel Haifa "simply acted like a bunch of horse thieves when they grabbed a player who was under contract. You just don't do such things. That is the reason why we are going to appeal to FIFA and sue them for the entire period of Khatib's contract, up to 2016."
Hapoel Haifa owner Yoav Katz says he regrets the fact that a "dispute has arisen between our two clubs. We have nothing against Jabal Mukkaber or against Palestinian soccer in general. We believe in peaceful coexistence that is authentic coexistence." According to Katz, "When Jabal Mukkaber signed Khatib up three years ago, he was still under contract with an Israeli club [Hapoel Bnei Tamra]. When they wanted him, they didn't ask his club or the Israel Football Association to release him from his contract. Why are they complaining about our signing him up, especially in view of his insistence that he has no contract with them?"
"I was treated very nicely in Palestine," as Khatib puts it. "I was always paid on time and in cash - in dollars. Salaries there range from NIS 14,000 to NIS 20,000 [per month]." Khatib was also one of Jabal Mukkaber's most expensive players.
Issa: "Unquestionably, he was one of the club's star players. Because of his excellent performance with us, he was invited to play on the Palestinian national team, where he scored goals against Bahrain and Sudan. I know for a fact that Bahrain wanted to sign him up as a professional player. He has great potential but is currently pursuing a course that will only hurt him and Hapoel Haifa."
In the meantime, Khatib's decision to quit Jabal Mukkaber has created a furor throughout the West Bank. "Everyone is talking about it," says Adham Hadiya, who played for Premier League Maccabi Petah Tikva and is now with Hebron's Shabab al-Khalil. "There are several dozen Israeli Arabs playing in the Palestinian league. The Khatib incident has placed all of them in a negative light. On the other hand, we are still shown a lot of respect" (he uses the English word) and are treated as one of them - "as 100-percent Palestinians."
The Palestinian league, which has 10 teams, has been active in the West Bank since 2008. "Most of the clubs are from Hebron, Nablus, Jerusalem, Tul Karm and Ramallah, although the league champion is Shabab al-Amari from the El Bireh refugee camp," points out Issa. "Last year, the league turned completely professional. The average club budget is NIS 1.5 million and each team has a couple of players who earn more than $60,000 per season. That is a huge amount in the West Bank, where the average monthly salary is NIS 2,000."
Those figures, though, are a far cry from salaries in Israel's Premier League. Furthermore, Palestinian Premier League games are invariably well attended: "Close to 10,000 people regularly come to our games in Hebron," says Hadiya, but he adds, "In Israel, I couldn't even dream of seeing even a tenth of that audience." When it comes to the home games of the Palestinian national team, which have been held in the West Bank since 2008, there are even crowds in the tens of thousands.
An American blogger of Palestinian descent, Bassil Mikdadi, who lives in Amman and runs the English-language Football Palestine website, says the popularity of soccer among Palestinians has been boosted in the past decade due to the fact that the sport has become institutionalized - thanks largely to Jibril Rajoub, former head of Palestinian security forces and currently president of both the Palestinian Football Association and its national Olympic committee. According to Mikdadi, Rajoub has in particular helped to establish the Palestinian national team and Premier League. Mikdadi adds that the Palestinian national team has in recent years played in Asian Cup games and in World Cup preliminaries. In addition, he says Palestinian players from all parts of the Palestinian diaspora - the United States, Chile, Europe and the Arab countries - are playing in teams around the world.
Ali Khatib played in six games with the Palestinian national team. "It was a great honor and a marvelous opportunity," recalls Hapoel Haifa's new midfielder. "I played against Italy and against Bahrain and had a chance to see the world. The crowds at those games surround you with a lot of love."
His Israeli identity card did not prevent him from joining the Palestinian national team, he explains, but he declares that his dream "is to play in Europe as a member of the Israel national team."
Issa chuckles. "His chances of playing with the Israeli national team are about as good as Leo Messi's chances of playing with the Spanish national soccer team," he says, referring to the FC Barcelona star who plays on the Argentine national team. "Ali has already played with Palestine's national team, so how can he even dream of receiving permission to play with the Israeli national team? That would be completely unthinkable. But it is also unthinkable to steal a player who is under contract. Yet this act has been committed."
Hapoel owner Katz is not happy about these accusations, especially since, as he notes, a "third of the 500 young people who play on our youth teams are Arabs. Six Arabs play for our club. It has always been important for Hapoel Haifa to be in close contact with Israel's Arab community. In fact, I even wanted be the first club owner to hire an Arab coach, but I was persuaded that Arab soccer coaches have not yet attained the same level of professional knowledge as Jewish coaches. Frankly, I am not sure whether that assessment is correct."
Issa agrees: "Most of the Arab soccer clubs in Israel do not have Arab coaches. Although immense strides have been made by Arab soccer players in recent years, there is still a considerable amount of discrimination. An Arab can still only dream of ever coaching a Jewish club. That's one of the reasons why some of us prefer to work in Palestine."
Arab coaches suffer discrimination, both in Jewish and Arab clubs, and have trouble finding work outside the lower leagues.
The Palestinian Premier League is sponsored by the Palestinian mobile phone service provider Jawwal, and under Rajoub's leadership, it has taken quantum leaps forward in recent years. Indeed, says blogger Mikdadi, while Ali Khatib is a great soccer player, there are Palestinian players who surpass him. Plus one should take into account that the league does not include teams from Gaza, where the real talent is. In Mikdadi's view, the Palestinian league is still an amateur affair.
Meanwhile, Palestinians are furious over the fact that the Israeli authorities do not issue transit permits to those who want to travel from Gaza to the West Bank; this situation is preventing many Gaza soccer players from playing in the West Bank.
"It's difficult to bring foreign players into this league," claims Issa. "It is hard for players from neighboring countries to get here [to the West Bank] and the same is true for fans from those countries." Nonetheless, he insists that " Nothing will triumph over our love for soccer and our aspiration for independence."
At present, there is no official contact between the Palestinian Football Association and the Israel Football Association. Nevertheless, according to Mikdadi, one of the reasons why the Palestinian national team has been able to host games in the West Bank is the fact that Rajoub apparently has close ties with Israeli security agencies. According to some Palestinian sources, Rajoub was in the past also on very friendly terms with IFA chairman Avi Luzon, though at present they are not in contact. This may explain why the IFA supported Hapoel Haifa in the appeal that was lodged with the Tel Aviv District Court by the Jabal Mukkaber club; Moshe Avivi, the IFA's top legal adviser, even showed up in the courtroom.
But the East Jerusalem soccer team has not called it quits and, as its president, Ismail Serour, has firmly stated: "We are going to fight this thing to the bitter end. Prior to this incident, I had no quarrel with Hapoel Haifa. However, they have trampled upon us and upon our honor, and we are not going to let this happen without offering an appropriate response. The entire Palestinian people is behind us."
A few weeks ago, at a practice on Hapoel Haifa's field in Kiryat Haim, one could see that Khatib is well aware of the storm that has erupted in connection with his decision to join the Haifa club. He has been showered with requests from journalists who only want to interview him on this subject. Still, that hasn't kept him from putting in a terrific performance in recent Premier League games. He is also aware that the story actually goes far beyond the incident in which he is involved.
"People must understand that I am simply a soccer player who wants to move forward career-wise," says Khatib, a short and slender young man. "I am a person of peace. It would be wonderful if one day the Palestinian national team could play against the Israeli national team. Then I would play the first half of the game with one team and the second half with the other team."
Unfortunately, such a match cannot be expected to take place in the near future. If Khatib continues to excel and if Jabal Mukkaber turns to FIFA to fight his decision to play for Hapoel Haifa, the story of this talented soccer player may assume even larger proportions. Khatib, who was virtually unknown in Israel up until a few weeks ago, understands that people in his "other" country are very angry with him. Instead of talking about the subject out loud, he displays the English-language tattoo he has on his forearm: "Only God Can Judge Me."