In the summer of 2004, Bnei Sakhnin became the first Arab Israeli soccer team to win the State Cup, a knockout tournament comparable to England's FA Cup. The Israeli paper Haaretz called it the "first major sporting success of an Israel-Arab club," including the first UEFA Champions League spot for an Arab club. The news made international headlines and was a source of pride amongst Arab Israelis.
Bnei Sakhnin's success further attracted global attention due to the team's message of coexistence. Despite playing in a predominantly Muslim 25,000-person town, Sakhnin had a Jewish manager, three Jewish players, and played the Israeli National Anthem before matches. Bnei Sakhnin's captain and star player, Abbas Suan, became a national hero amongst Arabs and Jews alike when he scored a key goal for Israel's national team against Ireland.
This wasn't exactly a peaceful time in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (not that there really is such a thing), but, for once, the term "soccer diplomacy" seemed to actually mean something. In When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, author James Montague describes Arab Israelis as "viewed suspiciously both by their Jewish countrymen (for being pro-Palestinian fifth columnists) and by the wider Arab world (for being Zionist collaborators)." Over the phone, Montague emphasized that there were very few symbols of Arab equality within Israel at the time, giving Bnei Sahknin an important role for the approximately 1.5 million Arabs within Israel's borders. "Sakhnin is a symbol for all the Arab minority inside Israel," one fan told the BBC in 2004. "If the team wins, it's as if all the Arabs in this country win."
You would think a team with 1.5 million supporters wouldn't have trouble finding sponsors, yet a reporter for Haaretz told BBC that "Jewish companies don't sponsor Sakhnin." Indeed, the club has had trouble staying financially afloat, partly because few Israeli soccer teams are financially sound. James Dorsey, author of the prominent blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, told me via email that "Palestinian clubs in the Israeli Premier League will find winning sponsorship more difficult."
Like in many other leagues, some Israeli clubs stay afloat through wealthy benefactors willing to sink significant funds into the team. Russian-Israeli billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak donated $400,000 to Bnei Sakhnin in 2005, and another $440,000 after Sakhnin's relegation the following year. This was a remarkable gesture considering Gaydamak owned ultra-right wing club Beitar Jerusalem, whose supporters proudly state the club has never employed an Arab. "I am donating NIS 2 million toward coexistence, fraternity and peace between Arabs and Jews in Israel," Gaydamak told Haaretz. "Soccer is important to a lot of people in Israel, and I wish to take advantage of this to bring the two peoples closer."
Still, the oddest influx of cash came from one of the 32 United Nations member states that does not recognize Israel. In 2006, after years of playing its home matches 50 kilometers away in Haifa due to the shabby state of its home grounds, Bnei Sakhnin received $6 million from Qatar Sports Investments for its stadium, since renamed Doha Stadium. In July, Qatar announced another round of funding to the tune of $2.5 million, or more than half of the team's annual budget.
According to Montague, Qatar wants to be a "diplomatic hub," acting as a mediator between the United States, Israel, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others. Despite not officially recognizing Israel, Qatar is one of the few Muslim nations that allows Israeli athletes to compete on their soil. "The investment in the stadium in 2006 fit into its foreign policy that seeks to play a mediator's role as a way of maintaining good relations with all parties and projecting Qatar as a good international citizen," Morsey told me. "The same goes for the more recent investments in Israeli Palestinian soccer clubs."
But over the last decade, Jewish attitudes towards Bnei Sakhnin and other Arab Israeli clubs have become more extreme, reflecting a general shift across Israeli politics. According to Foreign Policy, right wing parties would win 56 seats in the next election, a 13-seat increase over last year, while the center-left would shrink by 11 seats.
As a result, much of the goodwill from Bnei Sakhnin's success has been undone. In a match against Beitar Jerusalem last December, Al-Monitor reported that Sakhnin fans waved Palestinian flags and Beitar supporters ripped and burned a Quran. The post-match focus was not on the burning of holy texts, but the waving of flags. Miri Regev, a right-wing Knesset member, wrote on her Facebook page, "The situation where a [soccer] club receives support from the State of Israel as part of its sports-sponsorship policy, while the club fans are waving the flags of Palestine, is unacceptable." According to Al-Monitor, she vowed to introduce legislation to expel Bnei Sakhnin from the Israeli Premier League.
Beitar has always abused Arab Israeli clubs—the chants in 2004 were "Death to the Arabs," although Beitar is similarly cruel to left-wing Jewish clubs—but the Gaza War in 2008-09 was a turning point of sorts as the far-right expanded to encompass much of Israeli politics. As usual, the problems extend far beyond soccer.
The 2009 election in Israel saw a shift to the right among Jewish Israelis. A conservative coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu took power and enacted a strategy of isolating Gaza financially, politically, and militarily with the intent of neutralizing Hamas. Qatar's continued financing of Hamas did not bode well for popular sentiment of a team that plays in a building called Doha Stadium.
Neither have rising tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Palestinian Knesset member Hanin Zoabi is serving a six-month ban from Knesset debates for saying on a radio interview that the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers wasn't terrorism. She is now under investigation for "inciting others to violence and insulting two police officers" during an anti-war political rally, according to The Times of Israel.
Arab-Israelis have always had to live with tension between their heritage and their country of residence—tension that is only increasing. Montague pointed out that in the last few years, the West Bank Premier League has become an increasingly attractive destination for Arab Israeli players who no longer tolerate the rampant racism in the Israeli league. (The West Bank league doesn't allow foreign players, except for Arab Israelis, and has comparable wages to the Israeli league.) Further, Jewish players have become more skittish about joining an Arab Israeli team. Bnei Sakhnin, once the model for cooperation, no longer has any Jewish players. The problem is not that Sakhnin is no longer an outlier, but that it ever had to be one. As a Sakhnin fan told the New York Times Magazine in 2011, "for us, soccer is the only place we're equal in this stinking country."