Arab soccer team fined NIS 15,000 for honoring suspected spy

Bnei Sakhnin escapes with a relatively light punishment for tribute to fugitive ex-MK Azmi Bishara

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative photo of Bnei Sakhnin fans during a soccer game, February 10, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Bnei Sakhnin fans during a soccer game, February 10, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

The Arab soccer club Bnei Sakhnin was fined NIS 15,000 ($4,000) Wednesday for a tribute it paid to a fugitive former Knesset member suspected of spying for Hezbollah.

Yisrael Shimoni, the Israel Football Association judge, also gave the team a conditional fine of NIS 35,000.

There had been talk of measures ranging from a warning to a monetary fine, losing points or even demotion from the league, but the final verdict was relatively light.

The management of Bnei Sakhnin was pleased with the verdict, and declined to appeal, Channel 2 reported.

Club spokesman Mundar Khalila said after the hearing, according to Ynet, “The discussion was quite nice with mutual respect…We will continue to be transparent, we have nothing to hide.”

A statement released by the team before the hearing said that Bnei Sakhnin stands for peace, “and it works ceaselessly for protecting and enhancing relations among the many sectors of society.”

The IFA said it had “decided to take disciplinary action against Bnei Sakhnin” after the club honored those who had helped secure a Qatari donation to build its home ground, Doha Stadium.

Bnei Sakhnin is the Premier League’s only Arab-Israeli club and its state-of-the-art football stadium and sports complex was built with millions of dollars in donations from Qatar in 2005.

Among those honored at the ceremony, which took place before a match against Hapoel Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, was Azmi Bishara, a former member of the Knesset who fled Israel in 2007 after being accused of collaborating with Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Bishara, who comes from the northern Arab city of Nazareth and now lives in Qatar, has repeatedly denied the allegations that accused him of advising Hezbollah during its 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

The ceremony triggered a furious response from several Israeli cabinet ministers, who called for the team to be punished.

Premier League chief Oren Hasson also wrote a letter of complaint to the IFA, a copy of which was seen by AFP, saying the club had failed to inform the league about the nature of the ceremony.

The IFA said the club had violated two of its regulations, and was guilty of “unbecoming conduct” and of taking a stance, while on the pitch, on disputed political and public issues.

There was no immediate response from the club.

Former Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara (photo credit: Flash90)
Former Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara (photo credit: Flash90)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has spoken against Israeli-Arab leaders he sees as anti-Israel, and who in 2006 called for Bishara to face the death penalty over the Hezbollah allegations, lashed out at the club.

“When a football team in the Israeli league thanks Azmi Bishara, who is suspected of spying and aiding Hezbollah… strong measures should be taken against it,” he wrote on Facebook.

Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat also slammed the tribute as “crossing a red line,” saying the IFA should take “strict measures against the team,” the top-selling newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth reported on Sunday.

But Bnei Sakhnin chairman Mohammed Abu Yunes played down the incident.

“A big fuss is being made out of nothing,” he told the paper.

“We just wanted to thank the people who helped us raise money to support the team. What do they want from us? The establishment doesn’t give us money, so why shouldn’t we raise money overseas?”

AFP contributed to this report.

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