Dedicated to the memory of Israel Tzvi Raab Z”L, a true lover of the game

The long, complex encounter between the Israeli and Palestinian people has been examined in many cinematic and literary creations. In this essay, I will explore several that use football as a lens to read opposing political agendas and as a means to resolve conflict.

In a recent commercial for Israeli cell-phone giant Cellcom, smiling Israeli soldiers play football at the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.[1] They kick the ball to the other side, and it is promptly returned. The announcer declares, “What, after all, do we all want? A little Keif” (an Arabic word meaning “fun”). The ad was lambasted by activists, who pointed to four years of weekly protests at the villages of Bil’in and Ni’lin, where soldiers often attacked football tournaments, and where Palestinians, Israelis, and Internationalists have been injured and killed. In a counter-video, events are seen from the Palestinian side of the barrier, and it is protesters who first kick the ball to the Israeli side. A title reads, “No friendly over-the-wall football game,” as the soldiers respond by lobbing gas canisters.[2]

These ads reflect the two faces of football in Israeli and Palestinian film and literature. Despite a variety of portrayals, two parallel narratives have developed that each side has told itself and the other about the right to the land, whose suffering is greater, and the many wars and efforts toward peace.[3]

There is a growing body of work worldwide about football and politics: the use of the game for political gain and the way disenfranchised groups have used it as a means to liberation. There are also an increasing number of studies that address the early development of football in Israel/Palestine, the way that sports clubs helped form national consciousness for both sides, the place of Palestinian football in the Jewish state, and the ways that the fate of Palestinian football mirrors that of the Palestinian people.[4]

It is beyond the scope of this work to elaborate on this rich history, but it is important to note that since its introduction in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire to its growing popularity during the British Mandate, football was an arena of cooperation but also of enmity between the Israeli and Palestinian nations. Informal games and teams comprised of Jewish and Palestinian workers, including at the Haifa Oil refineries and among orange pickers, were common. League-based games involving Jewish, Palestinian, and British teams were played amicably until the 1929 riots ended this experiment, but matches between Jewish and neighboring Arab teams continued. Even in the mid-1940s, Jewish teams traveled to Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, demonstrating that despite the increasing antagonism and bloodletting, football remained an important arena of sportsmanship and friendship. When conflicts developed on the pitch, they often arose from intra-national struggles: between Palestinian players of differing parties and among Jewish athletes whose teams reflected sharp societal divisions.[5] Conflict was mostly subdued in games between Jewish and Arab teams, but intense national solidarity was shown in matches with British teams.

Since the 1948 war, Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers and writers have used football to illuminate the political situation. Some emphasize the evils of the occupation and how even the game falls victim to larger political forces. The film Goal Dreams, directed by Palestinian Maya Sanbar and American Jeffrey Saunder, follows the Palestinian national team’s attempt to reach the 2006 Mundial.[6] It profiles four players from refugee camps in Gaza and Lebanon and from the far corners of the Palestinian Diaspora in Chile and the United States. Forced to practice in Egypt and conduct home games in Qatar, the team was barred from traveling to games by Israeli and Egyptian soldiers. During the 2006 football season, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers killed player Marek Al-Quto and wounded others, arrested players’ relatives, and demolished homes. The film describes hardship but also camaraderie and the national pride that the team inspires in its fans. Midfielder Eduardo Abdala Montero says, “The players represent so many people suffering … We bring satisfaction and joy to these people.”[7]

The theme of football as the embodiment of national aspirations is common among ethnic minorities and emerging states, including Israel. A poem by Natan Alterman portrays the 1956 matches against the Soviet team as part of the 2,000-year struggle with the entire Christian world. Using the identical term in Hebrew for “goal” and “gate,” Alterman calls for the Israeli team to score and tear down the walls that bar Soviet Jews from returning to their ancestral home.[8]

Children’s films have shown football as a path to freedom — in reality or the imagination. Ramallah animators Amer Shomali and Basel Nasr’s four-minute animation Child Fiction states that the wall’s harmful effects don’t always “separate child from dream.” The film shows a lad bouncing a ball that resembles the world as he approaches the barrier. It topples as he plays, suggesting that the joy of the game is a powerful weapon against oppression. Offside, an Arabic-language short by Israelis Dorit Tadir and Daniel Sivan produced for the human rights organization Gisha, shows a boy who creatively overcomes the wall to play with his friends.[9]

Elizabeth Laird’s young adult book A Little Piece of Ground, written with Palestinian Sonia Nimer, tells of 12-year-old Karim Aboudi, who dreams of football glory. He and his friends try to transform a field bulldozed by the Israeli army into a pitch, resulting in a battle with the IDF. Karim is shot, but, as the story ends, he imagines, “He’d go back soon, when his leg was better, and … make the field theirs again and play football, and play, and play.”[10]

While the aforementioned works focus on individuals, others look at a community of players. Saed Abu Hamoud’s film Second Half follows the fate of his teammates from the Sazian Orthodox School of Bethlehem, starting in 1989, the last year of the first Intifada, and resuming 18 years later. Player Anton Shahin was killed, and others arrested or exiled, reflecting the fortune of many Palestinians who came of age just before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Another work focusing on the collective is the 30-part television series “The Team,” written and directed by Nabil Shohami and financed by Palestinian TV station Ma’an and the NGO Search for Common Ground. The series opens in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where two lovers recite Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s words of longing. The scene shifts to a sports club where debate flares over which game to watch — Real Madrid vs. Barcelona or Zamalek vs. Al Ahly — and spills over to politics. The series presents the complexities of Palestinian society, the realities of life under occupation, and the passion to resolve problems creatively and peacefully. Economic hardship, land confiscation, and resistance are woven into the plot. The choice to set the story in an athletic club evokes the beginnings of Palestinian sports, when such clubs were centers of culture, politics, and identity building. Archival footage shows the effects of larger historical realities, such as the 1948 Nakba, on the game.[11]

For Palestinian citizens, football is a major mode of integration into Jewish society, as shown by sociologist Tamir Sorek.[12] Several studies indicate that Palestinian fans of Arab and of Jewish teams score higher than non-fans on such measures of integration as voting for Zionist parties and watching Israeli television. Several documentaries about the Bnei Sakhnin team[13] explore the dynamics of Palestinian teams and fans in Israel. The team, composed of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish players, holds a unique place in Israeli society; when it won the State Cup in 2004, its players and fans waved both Israeli and Palestinian flags. One film shows the visit of Abbas Suan, the team’s star midfielder and member of the Israeli national team, with his father to the ruins of their village, demolished by the IDF in the 1948 war. Suan doesn’t express his feelings, perhaps because he and other players of Palestinian origin had recently been criticized for refusing to sing the Israeli anthem, with its lyrics about the yearning of the “Jewish soul” for Zion. What is left unsaid expresses the divided identity of many Palestinian citizens and the opposition they face, manifested during matches by racial insults and calls of “death to the Arabs.”[14]

There are additional layers to the conflict between the nations: Several films note the interplay of class, gender, and ethnicity. These include the Israeli film Beit Shean: War Story, about the struggle of a Jewish team (including a few Arab players) from a poor “development town” of mostly Mizrachi residents to compete with the powerful and wealthy.[15] In Vasermil, three youths - Mizrachi, Ethiopian, and Russian (three marginalized groups in Israeli society) - band together to pursue their dreams.[16] Forerunners[17] follows players Sylvie Jan, Inna Diditch, and Salwa Amsis — a Mizrachi, a Ukrainian Jew, and a Christian Palestinian on the national women’s team who defy long-held prejudices in both Jewish and Palestinian society against women playing a “man’s game."[18] The short film Bethlehem Female Soccer Team, directed by Laura Conti, addresses the struggles against patriarchal attitudes and the Israeli occupation. Football gives the women hope and a sense of personal autonomy - sentiments shared by their fellow Israeli female footballers.[19]

The works surveyed thus far emphasize players’ ability to overcome prejudice and the occupation’s violence. Others have taken a different tack, suggesting that football can be a bridge between two warring peoples. Eran Riklis’ 1991 film Cup Final[20] takes place during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and follows the developing friendship between an Israeli soldier and his Palestinian fighter captors, united by their love of the game and of the Italian national team. It was one of the first Israeli films to feature complex Palestinian characters whose political commitments are shown not as acts of madness but of rational choice.

A more pessimistic view is expressed in Erez Tadmor and Guy Nativ’s short film Offside.[21] Israeli and Palestinian soldiers unite to listen to the Mundial Final on the radio, but a bullet released accidently causes them to shoot each other to death, while in the background the match commentator can be heard complaining about an unfair penalty kick awarded and the unjustness of life. In Itay Meirson’s satiric novel The Ninety Minute War, after the collapse of yet another round of peace talks, the two sides agree to end the conflict through a match held in a neutral stadium. The winning nation will retain possession of the contested land, while the loser’s people will depart forever. The book, released a few months before Israel’s 2008 bombing of Gaza, ends with the opening kick of the match.[22]

In the late 1970s, at a time when Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were held in secret and at great risk, Palestinian physician and PLO leader Issam Sartawi expressed his desire for peace to his friend Uri Avneri, the Israeli writer and peace activist. He said, “I know I would not come to my hometown of Acre, but my son will play football there with Jewish children.”[23] Sartawi was assassinated in 1983. His dream remains to be fulfilled.

 


[1]. The barrier has been called by its supporters “The Security Fence” and by its opponents “The Apartheid Wall.”

[2]. There is a voluminous literature about the resistance to the construction of the barrier, as well as several films including Bil’in My Love and Budrus. See also . The two ads can be seen on . .

[3]. Robert Roteberg, ed. Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

[4]. These include works by Issam Khalidi, Amir Ben Porat, Hagai Harif, and Haim Kaufman. See, for example, Haim B. Yair Galily, “Sport, Politics, and Society in Israel: The First Fifty-Five Years,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2007), pp. 515-28; Haim B. Kaufman and Haggy Harif, Sport and Physical Culture in Israel in the 20th Century (Jerusalem, Ben Tzvi Institute, 2002, in Hebrew); Issam Khalidi, “Body and Ideology: Early Athletics in Palestine (1900-1948), Jerusalem Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3 ( 2006), pp. 44-58; and Issam Khalidi, “The Zionist Movement and Sports in Palestine,” The Electronic Intifada, April 27, 2009.

[5]. The sharp political divisions in Israeli football and society continued into the 1950s when, for a few years, there were two premier leagues in Israel, divided along party lines.

[6]. Maya Sanbar and Jeffrey Saunder, Goal Dreams, 2006.

[7]. Sanbar and Saunder, Goal Dreams, 2006.

[8]. Natan Alterman, The Seventh Column, (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz ha’meuhad, 1962, in Hebrew), p. 145.

[9]. Child Fiction .

[10]. Elizabeth Laird, A Little Piece of Ground (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2006), p. 240.

[11]. Alon Raab, “Palestinian Soccer Drama - ‘Team’ Building for Social Change,” .

[12]. Tamir Sorek, Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave (London, Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[13]. The Bnei Sakhnin team has been the subject of four films and several academic studies. On its view by the media see Alina Bernstein and Lea Mandelzis, “Bnei Sakhnin through the Looking Glass,” Sport and Society, Vol. 12, No. 8 (2009), pp. 1054-64.

[14]. Amir Ben Porat, “Death to the Arabs - The Right Wing Fan’s Fear,” Soccer and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2008), pp. 1-13.

[15]. Doron Tsabari, Beit Shean: War Story, 1996.

[16]. Mushon Salmona, Vasermil, 2007.

[17]. Pazeet Mili Ben Hayai, Forerunners, 2004.

[18]. Roni Darom, “Women’s Sport in Israel” in Haim B. Kaufman, ed., Sport and Physical Culture in Israel in the 20th Century (Jerusalem: Ben Tzvi Institute, 2002, in Hebrew). and Alina Bernstein and Yair Galily, “Games and Sets: Women, Media and Sport in Israel,” Nashim, No. 15 (Spring 2008), pp. 175-96.

[19]. Laura Conti, Bethlehem Female Soccer Team, 2008, .

[20]. Eran Riklis, Cup Final, 1991.

[21]. Erez Tadmor and Guy Nativ, Offside, 2007, .

[22]. Itay Meirson, The Ninety Minute War (Jerusalem: Yediot Achronot Books, 2008, in Hebrew), .

[23]. Uri Avneri, My Friend, the Enemy, (Westport, CT: Hill, 1986).