Palestinian Nationalism Is a Political Stance

We can argue about politics and what constitutes a political statement, but we cannot deny that the people of Sakhnin have a national identity that differs from that of the Jewish citizens of the state.

Irad Tsafrir
Irad Tsafrir
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Do these flags of Bnei Sakhnin soccer fans require that the club be put on trial for their political behavior?
Do these flags of Bnei Sakhnin soccer fans require that the club be put on trial for their political behavior?Credit: Nir Keidar
Irad Tsafrir
Irad Tsafrir

I will begin with a bombastic declaration: Former MK Azmi Bishara was not convicted of espionage. He was not convicted for one reason – because the State of Israel didn’t want to convict him. Its reasons, whatever they may be, could range from fear of a show trial that would ignite the country to fear that the case against the onetime lawmaker is circumstantial and would not pass the test of the High Court of Justice. The bottom line is that a person who is suspected of spying for a bitter enemy like Hezbollah during wartime doesn’t leave Israel so easily without permission. “Flight” is not an option in a regime where the security organizations know and decide everything.

And now to the matter of Bnei Sakhnin, the Israeli soccer club that saluted Bishara at a recent game. His picture, on a framed award at a ceremony, made waves nationwide. And now the Israel Football Association has to rule on a case that involves clandestine files of the kind that are carefully guarded in Shin Bet warehouses.

Former Israeli Arab MK Azmi BisharaCredit: Reuters

So I will try to examine the legal issue: The IFA prosecutor accused Bnei Sakhnin of “unbecoming conduct” and “involvement of a group and/or adoption of a position by it on the grounds of the playing field on controversial political and public issues.”

The second clause is problematic, and not only in Israel. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) also has a hard time with trials over adopting a political stance, and deciding where a line is crossed. Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, is very strict on this issue and adopts a clear policy of harsh sanctions against any soccer association in which there is government involvement in decision-making.

In that sense, the “recommendation” of Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) to expel Bnei Sakhnin from the Premier League doesn’t leave the IFA any opening for opposing the government, even if they wanted to (which they don’t, of course). Even if the disciplinary court decides on a “lighter” punishment such as reducing points, it’s clear that the words of Livnat and other ministers would constitute clear proof for Sakhnin of political intervention in IFA decisions. FIFA will, of course, intervene in such a hypothetical situation and torpedo the punishment.

There is no question that Bishara’s picture on the award, and the tribute to him as one of those who helped Sakhnin secure a donation of millions of dollars from the Emir of Qatar, suits the definition of “adopting a stance on a controversial political and public issue.” But let me ask a naive question: Is the picture of Bishara, the suspected spy who received permission to leave the country, a more serious disciplinary offense than a soccer team being owned by someone who was convicted of espionage against Israel, no less?

The story of Shabtai Kalmanovich has barely been mentioned in the media since the Sakhnin-Bishara affair erupted, but it’s amazing to recall that a man who spied for the KGB – and served six years in prison for that – owned the Elitzur Ramle women’s basketball team, the national champion at the time, and not a single MK raised an outcry.

The Bishara affair will probably die down after Bnei Sakhnin pays a fine of some tens of thousands of shekels, according to estimates. The issue that will continue to crop up will be the ostensibly political signs and flags of its fans. Last Saturday one of their signs showed a pair of eyes looking at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with the inscription “Jerusalem our Holiness.” A flag with a clear political statement was also raised at Sakhnin’s first game in the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa (incidentally, Ofer was responsible for the deaths of far more people from cancer than were harmed by the activity of presumed spy Bishara).

Do these flags of Sakhnin fans require that the club be put on trial for their political behavior? In my opinion, definitely not. Certainly not as long as racist anti-Arab songs are played at soccer fields and go unpunished. Racism, by the way, is not a legitimate political opinion, because it is not acceptable as freedom of expression. In addition, UEFA has placed a special emphasis on it and demands the closure of the stadiums of teams whose spectators commit racist acts.

If we’re already talking about political signs, nobody has mentioned the fact that recentlyduring a game against Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv fans raised a sign in Serbian saying “Kosovo is Serbia.” Is that a controversial political subject? Very much so. But apparently not of enough interest to the league administration and the IFA.

And what about raising the Palestinian flag? Until now the IFA refrained from trying Sakhnin for raising these flags in its bleachers. In the atmosphere of public political condemnation of the team, there is of course also a demand to prevent its fans from raising Palestinian flags in the Doha Stadium, which contravenes past court decisions permitting such behavior.

Those who are demanding it claim: This is provocation. They apparently forget that as far as Sakhnin fans are concerned, they are Palestinian citizens of Israel, and when the guest team raises the Israeli flag in Doha Stadium that is also provocation. It should also be recalled that the flag of the Basque region, whose underground perpetrated lethal terror attacks against Spain in the past, is proudly raised at games of Basque teams.

Nationality in general is a modern invention, and the national flag is its greatest symbol. We can argue about politics and what constitutes a political statement, but we cannot deny that the people of Sakhnin have a national identity that differs from that of the Jewish citizens of the state. Here, too, there will be wise guys who say there is no such thing as Palestinian nationalism. They are apparently waiting for the approaching independence of the Palestinian state to receive an official stamp.

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