Right-wing politicians demanded that sports authorities heavily penalize the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team after the club’s management held a controversial ceremony Saturday in honor of Qatari donors and prominent figures from across the Arab world, including Azmi Bishara, a former Knesset member who fled Israel amid suspicions that he had provided information to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
“Penalties or fines are not sufficient measures for the action of the Bnei Sakhnin team last night!” Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat wrote on her Facebook page Sunday.
“Only removing the team from the [Israeli Premier] League will clarify to the management, which now suddenly acts so innocent, the severity of the ‘ceremony’ in honor of Azmi Bishara, who is suspected of committing treason and espionage for Israel’s worst enemies.”
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman too called for the expulsion of Bnei Sakhnin, a team whose players are almost exclusively Arab, from the Israeli Premier League, adding sarcastically that the club should consider playing in the Qatari or Palestinian soccer leagues instead.
The ceremony took place in Sakhnin’s Doha Stadium, which is named after the Qatari capital, several minutes before the team’s match against Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
As part of the ceremony, Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanayem lifted a picture of Bishara and dedicated a shield of honor to the prince of Qatar. During the match itself, Sakhnin’s fans raised a banner with the words “Jerusalem is ours” inscribed beneath a picture of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Bishara is now based in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Aside from donating millions of dollars to Bnei Sakhnin’s sports facilities over the past several years, the tiny emirate of Qatar has been accused of bankrolling Gaza-based terror group Hamas as well as undermining attempts to broker a ceasefire between the group and Israel during the IDF’s 50-day-long operation in the Palestinian enclave this past summer. The Persian Gulf state also offers refuge to the organization’s exiled leaders and is believed to maintain ties with other Islamist terror groups across the Middle East.
While the Israeli Soccer Association contemplated its response to the controversial ceremony, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised Bnei Sakhnin’s management for its willingness to honor Bishara.
“All blessings to the sports team Bnei Sakhnin, which stood up to the challenge and honored Doctor Azmi Bishara, giving him an award during the opening of the Doha Stadium in Sakhnin, despite all the threats from the criminal Liberman,” Barhoum wrote in a post on his Facebook page.
MK Jamal Zahalka of Bishara’s Balad party, who attended the Saturday match, brushed off criticism over the team’s actions and accused Liberman of deliberately using the ceremony as a means to incite against the Arabs in Israel.
“The sport of Liberman is incitement against Arabs,” he said. “He does not shy away from any chance and any means to attack and spread the poisons of hatred and racism.”
Sakhnin’s mayor defended the ceremony and asserted that the donations from Qatar were critical to the team.
“It is unfortunate that everybody is making such a fuss about this, because without the contribution of Qatar and without the help of Azmi Bishara, Bnei Sakhnin would not have been able to play in the league,” Ghanayem said on Sunday, according to Ynet.
He added that the Israeli government had dismissed his requests for assistance in funding the team.
“They told us, ‘Why don’t you also turn to the Arab world [for help]?'” Ghanayem charged. “So we turned to the Arab world, and this is what happened.”