Israel: Qatar funds spark controversy over Arab soccer team

Cabinet angry, "out of championship"

20 October, 11:21

    (by Aldo Baquis) (ANSAmed) - TEL AVIV, OCTOBER 20 - Arab soccer team Bney Sakhnin on Saturday enraged the Israeli government when, shortly after the start of a championship match, it publicly paid homage to the man who saved it at the last moment from financial ruin thanks to hefty funding from Qatar. The man - the loudspeakers at the 'Doha' stadium in Sakhnin, northern Israel, announced - is former MP Azmi Bishara. Bishara is a figure that often sparks Pavlovian reactions of hostility among the Israeli ruling class.

    After the war in Lebanon in 2006, when he was a member of the Knesset (parliament) and the leader of nationalist party Balad, the secret services suspected Bishara was colluding with Hezbollah. In 2007, he suddenly left Israel, without ever coming back.

    A graduate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bishara is deeply acquainted with Israeli society.

    Now living in Qatar, he is often invited by Arab broadcasters and he usually maintains a very critical position towards the Jewish States in his interviews.

    The gratitude expressed by the management of Bney Sakhnin enraged the sports ministry. Minister Limor Livnat, a leading member of Likud, accused the team of ''crossing a red line'' and said she was considering disciplinary action. Such a measure would be particularly painful as Bney Sakhnin in the past was cited as an example of sportsmanship, given that the team includes Muslim and Jewish players.

    Subsequently Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also highlighted Bishara's past and called on Bney Sakhnin to choose another championship, rather than Israel's: ''They should go play in the Palestinian league or in Qatar'', he said.

    In Gaza, Hamas also took a stance on the matter, praising Bney Sakhnin for ''keeping up with the criminal Lieberman''.

    The team's managers expressed bitterness and surprise. After no funding was found in Israel, Bishara opened a few doors in Doha so the team could find aid, they said. Management added that funding from Qatar was not deemed suspect by Israeli authorities and the whole operation was aimed at supporting sport in the Arab Israeli sector where resources are notoriously scarce.

    Now everyone is waiting to see whether disciplinary action will ensue.

    Several episodes of intolerance between Jews and Muslims have been reported in Israel over the past few weeks. As a consequence, many have called on the Israeli football federation not to further heighten tensions over a situation which, according to well-known commentator Zuheir Ba'alul, ''can be summed up, at the most, in a small mistake'' made by the management of Bney Sakhnin.(ANSAmed).

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