HEBRON, West Bank (AFP) — For the first time in 30 years, Shebab Hebron soccer club has won the West Bank’s championship, thanks in large part to five new players — all Israeli Arabs.
Holding Israeli citizenship, they are eligible to play for the country’s professional clubs, which have facilities superior to those of the Palestinians.
But some are choosing to play for West Bank sides, both for reasons of Palestinian identity and, sometimes, for money.
Palestinians who remained after the creation of Israel in 1948, and their descendants, make up about 17.5 percent of Israel’s eight million population.
Hebron defender Haitham Dhib, 29, is from the town of Majd el-Krum, in northern Israel, but has been playing for the past eight years in the West Bank.
He is among six Israeli citizens on the Palestinian national team, a member of FIFA since 1998.
Dhib had played in Israel’s two top leagues but decided to cross into the West Bank for money and the adulation of the public.
On Palestinian streets, the faces of local soccer heroes smile down from giant billboards. For their fans, soccer is a kind of religion.
“At Palestinian championship matches, the spectators turn out in large numbers and the media treat you like a real professional and don’t regard the championship as an amateur competition,” Dhib told AFP.
For the West Bank clubs, to sign Israeli-trained players like Dhib is an opportunity not to be missed, Shabab Hebron coach Khader Obeid told AFP.
“They have real training over there,” he said. “It’s done differently, from childhood, in a serious and professional way.”
At the Israel Football Association, they’re not talking about an exodus of Arab players.
The numbers involved, IFA spokesman Eitan Dotan told AFP, “are not enormous.”
“Several have returned to the Israeli league for the better training facilities and also in response to requests,” he said.
Abu Obeideh Rabie, 26, played in the Israeli leagues in the past but at the start of this year moved to the Hebron club.
He said he was partly motivated by the Palestinian cause, influenced by his father’s imprisonment in Israel for nationalist activism, and also because he wanted for professional reasons to play a role in the development of the Palestinian championship.
“Professionalism in Israel is better,” he said. “But it is developing here and I’m sure that in a few years it will be completely professional.”
The improvement is due in part to the influx of the Israeli players, says Palestinian Football Association secretary general Abdel Majid Haja.
“They have greater abilities and bring an extra strength to the Palestinian championship,” he told AFP.
The romance between Israeli Arab players and Palestinian clubs can sometimes turn sour.
In April, the Asian Football Confederation ordered West Bank side Al-Dharia to forfeit a scheduled game against Syria’s Al-Wahda in Lebanon because of the non-arrival of the Palestinian team’s nine Israeli players.
Lebanon bans Israeli passport holders from entering the country, so the men were refused entry at Beirut international airport and the game had to be cancelled.