Ataa Jaber, the former captain of the U-21 Israeli national soccer team, has joined the Palestinian squad, becoming the highest-profile player to make the switch.
The 28-year-old midfielder, a native of Majd al-Krum in the western Galilee, made his debut with his new team on June 14 in a friendly match against Indonesia.
His choice to abandon the Israeli squad was motivated by the realization that “it was impossible to separate politics from sports,” he explained in a recent interview with Arab News.
A soccer prodigy since his early childhood, Jaber entered the academy of Maccabi Haifa at age 6 and joined the club as a professional player at 18. In 2015 he was tapped to play in Israel’s U-21 national team, which he captained four times. He currently plays for the Neftchi Baku club in Azerbaijan’s top league.
In his interview, Jaber recalled the tension that derived from being an Arab citizen playing for the Jewish state. “They feed a narrative to (Arab) players that sports should not mix with politics, that you represent your community, that you will have a voice, and that you don’t need to sing the (Israeli) national anthem,” he told Arab News.
“After what happened in Sheikh Jarrah, I realized that it was impossible to separate politics from sport,” he added, referring to a flashpoint Jerusalem neighborhood that has witnessed frequent clashes between Jews and Arabs in recent years, especially after Jewish Israelis started moving into the area and taking over local houses through complex eviction cases.
Since the Palestinian Football Association joined FIFA in 1998, several Arab players from the Israeli second and third tier joined one of the 12 clubs competing in the West Bank league, and some of them were called up to represent Palestine in international competitions.
Ata Jaber said he only discovered that joining the Palestinian national team was possible after meeting Palestine’s former goalkeeper Rami Hamadi, who began his career in Maccabi Netanya but had been playing in the West Bank league since 2012. In 2020, he returned to play in Israel, and joined the Bnei Sakhnin team for two seasons. In 2021, Hamadeh made history as the first active Israeli Premier League player to be called up to the Palestinian team. He has since returned to play in the West Bank league, and helped the Hebron-based Shabab al-Khalil win the Palestinian title in 2022.
After making his decision to switch national teams, it took Jaber almost two years to acquire a travel document issued by the PA, a prerequisite to be able to represent Palestine. “I took the decision to represent the Palestinian team for many reasons. First because I am Palestinian, second because I have the ability, and third to deliver a message to players inside the Green Line that this choice is available to them,” Jaber said.