On a warm, sunny, cloudless day at the beginning of March,
after several straight days of rain, I drove to Sakhnin. Riding
through breathtakingly beautiful scenery, enhanced by fresh carpets
of green grass dotted with red anemones, I forgot for a moment that
I was in Israel and imagined I was in Switzerland. When I reached
Sakhnin, I remembered, and came face to face with the reality of
Sakhnin is on the northern edge of the western part
of Lower Galilee – some would even say it’s part of Upper
Galilee. In any event, the imaginary borders between Lower and Upper
and Eastern and Western Galilee are an invention of human beings who
badly need order in their lives.
I drove down the coastal road on the Zichron
Ya’acov interchange, turned right at the Emakim Junction, and then
turned left at the Yishai Junction. Though I faithfully followed the
instructions I had received, I still got lost, gaining another few
kilometers of high-altitude air.
Leaving the last major Galilee intersection, the
road narrows and winds its way up Mt. Atzmon toward the 22 Jewish
settlements of the Misgav Bloc. They are small, manicured
communities, each with a few dozen families, clustered together for
an uncompromising quality of life. Their red roofs and luxuriant
gardens leave little doubt as to the affluence of their inhabitants.
The communities have cute, sterile names like Rakefet, Yuvalim,
Shorashim, Lotem, Ashtar, and Segev.
Sakhnin straddles a low hill overlooking the Sakhnin
Valley, one of the Lower Galilee’s five lateral valleys. The lush
agricultural land that surrounds Sakhnin was flooded when I visited,
a remnant of the previous week’s heavy rains.
Nine years ago, when its population passed the
20,000 mark, Sakhnin received the coveted status of city, entitling
it to increased funds from the government. Today, it has 26,000
inhabitants; most are Muslim, but there are also 2,000 Christians
and 2 Jewish families.
With no street lights, sidewalks, or cinemas, it is
not exactly a typical modern city. The main road through the valley
runs through Sakhnin. It is in desperate need of repair. The
residents know every pothole along its length, and adroitly maneuver
their way between them.
I passed a small square with a large block of stone
standing in it. It is known as Shahid (Martyr) Square, in memory of
those who were killed during the riots of March 1976 and October
2000. Several dozen meters later, I passed Peace Square. An olive
tree with a thick, scarred trunk and green branches, planted in the
center of the square, serves as a reminder of everyone’s dream.
Just several dozen meters apart, and a deep chasm between them –
reality here, and the vision there.
Turning off the main road, I entered small, narrow,
and congested streets. Beside large houses with fruit trees in their
courtyards were small stone buildings with bare concrete walls,
looking as if they were either in the middle of construction or
Seeing seven men sitting underneath a large carob
tree, I stopped for a chat and was served bitter coffee in a tiny
ceramic cup. At first, the men’s words were measured and careful.
Yes, there is coexistence with the neighboring communities. Yes, we
like the state of Israel. Yes, we feel Israeli. But little by
little, the pain was exposed, and the resentment emerged.
“Once I had a regular job, in construction,”
said Shafik Hlaele. “Then the riots began, and the Jews were
afraid to employ me. Instead they brought Romanians, Chinese, and
Thais, and I signed up for unemployment payments.” The man to his
right used to install antennas. He, too, is now unemployed. Another
installed windows. “Today, I’m a professor of being
unemployed,” he laughed. The city has a 13% unemployment rate, and
that is without counting the women, who don’t sign up for
In the past, most residents of Sakhnin worked in
agriculture, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelons. They
didn’t live in the lap of luxury, but they made a living. About 15
years ago, the town’s irrigation water was virtually cut off, as
part of countrywide cutbacks due to a drought. Residents maintain
that the cutbacks in their town were disproportionate. In any event,
agriculture died. Today, many people in Sakhnin spend much of their
time sitting under a tree in the yard, drinking coffee and bemoaning
Ahmed Hlaele used to be a policeman. Now he is the
city’s security officer, the only one in the group who is
employed. Rattling off statistics, he was clearly in command of the
material. “When the State of Israel was established, we were
already here,” he related. “The Jews had no bread, there was no
milk, there were no eggs. We supplied them with everything. We built
their houses, planted their gardens, paved their roads. We built
this country with our own hands. Do you understand why I feel first
and foremost like an Israeli?
“In the Six-Day War in 1967, when the army went
out to fight, we were the home front that made sure the country
would continue to function. Even my father’s van was called up for
the war; they used it to transport military equipment.”
Shafik proudly noted that their city is 2,000 years
old. Ahmed insisted it is 3,000 years old. In fact, Sakhnin is much
older. References to it appear as early as 1479 BCE, when it was a
small village conquered by Thutmose II (the pharaoh of the Exodus)
and its inhabitants made their living extracting purple pigment from
snails for dying hides. In those days, the village was called
Sukhnin – “home of the laborers,” in Aramaic.
The name had many incarnations in the course of
history. Under Assyrian king Sargon II, it was called Suginin, in
the Hellenistic period, it was called Sagani, and in ancient Hebrew
sources it was referred to as Sukhsikha, which means “produces
“It’s not easy to be an Israeli Arab in the
twenty-first century,” said Ahmed dourly. “We are stuck between
a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the Israelis call us Arabs,
and on the other hand, the Arabs from Arab countries call us Jews.
We’re neither here nor there.”
His Hebrew is fluent. In the local school, children
study Hebrew and learn about the Torah and Jewish holidays. “I’m
not religious, and I haven’t been in a mosque in years. On your
Day of Atonement, I don’t drive. And the state still prefers to
bring half-Jews from Russia, who don’t know a word of Hebrew. From
me, it takes my land and livelihood.”
One of the most complex and painful matters in
relations between Israeli Arabs and the state is the expropriation
of land. As part of an operation to bring more Jews to the Galilee
and the Negev, large amounts of land were expropriated – sparking
a series of riots in March 1976. The riots began as demonstrations
in Sakhnin and spread to the other Israeli Arab villages and towns
and to Judea and Samaria. They ended with six dead and dozens
injured, casualties that many attribute to the overreaction of the
Israeli security forces. Since then, Land Day is observed on March
31st, to commemorate these events.
“Sakhnin is perceived as a barometer of the Arab
sector,” Ahmed explained. “When it’s quiet in the city, it’s
quiet in the entire sector, but the anger can’t be kept inside
Shafik served another round of black coffee. The
conversation soon moved from politics to soccer. With no jobs or
places of recreation, the soccer field is the refuge of most of the
city’s inhabitants. This season, the Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin, the
local soccer team, as well as another Israeli Arab team, Maccabi Ahi
Nazareth, are playing in Israel’s Premier League. It’s only the
second time an Israeli Arab team has made it into the top league.
Sakhnin is called “a city of soccer.” The
residents breathe, eat, and dream Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin. Children
wander the streets dressed in the red, white, and black uniforms of
Israel’s Cinderella team, and women recite the players’ names
and positions and explain coach Eyal Lachman’s tactics in simple
words. The team’s banners flutter over the balconies of the
houses, and red stickers adorn car windows.
Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin is composed of 10 Arab players,
8 Jews, a goalkeeper from Guinea, a stopper from Cameroon, a French
midfielder, a Polish midfielder, and a Brazilian striker – a blend
of colors, cultures, religions, and beliefs that is putting in a
strong performance in the center of the chart, in opposition to all
the forecasts. “We have to manage with a budget of
NIS 9 million, which is a quarter of the budget of
the top teams, and we still give them a fight,” said Ahmed.
“We’re not afraid of anyone.”
His companions started getting excited and raising
their voices. “Our playing field is in terrible condition and we
have to host teams in Haifa,” Shafik complained. “There are no
dressing rooms, no showers, no balconies, and the grass is
crumbling,” his friend on the right continued. Ahmed summed up:
“Even in soccer they screw us. The discrimination doesn’t stop
with the distribution of funds or allocation of land. Soccer comes
out the loser as well.”
The ray of light about which everyone agrees is the
team’s large and united group of fans from the nearby Jewish
communities of the Misgav Bloc. Coexistence seems a great deal more
imminent when you see them together. Without too many fancy words,
and without wornout slogans, they prove that it isn’t only a
Every Saturday, the team charters a bus for the
fans, which leaves Sakhnin and makes its way among the surrounding
settlements. Red flags dangle from the bus windows and the sound of
lusty singing can be heard. Shoulder to shoulder, scarf to scarf,
they cheer their team together. Soccer is a mirror of society, and
at those moments it reflects a society that is open and warm.
On February 28, 2004, Sakhnin hosted the bastion of
the right wing in Israeli sports, Beitar Jerusalem, and the
fragility of the coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel was
driven home. The game, which began with a brawl between the opposing
fans, ended with dozens of people injured and arrested.
The Jerusalem crowd chanted “death to the Arabs”
and “death to the prophet Muhammed,” and the Sakhnin crowd
responded with its own litany of curses. The chairman and president
of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, Meir Fenigel, was greeted with
a salvo of bottles, and Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin’s chairman, Maazen
Ghanayem, saw the Sakhnin team scarf go up in flames.
The newspaper headlines spoke of racism, the TV talk
shows admonished, and accusations flew between the two team leaders.
“The media has turned us into monsters,” Shafik grumbled.
“Just imagine what would have happened if we would have chanted
‘Death to the Jews.’ They would have stoned us.” Sakhnin lost
2-0, and its fans, hurt and angry, vowed vengeance.
The following Saturday, the two teams were scheduled
for another encounter. The police beefed up security for the event.
A stranger arriving at the Kiryat Eliezer stadium near Haifa might
have mistaken the scene for a military operation. Three hundred
cops, an army helicopter, mounted police, and police vehicles were
deployed around the stadium.
But the trauma of the previous week, and the shared
fear of things getting out of hand, did their part and the encounter
concluded quietly, with a heaven-sent score of 0-0. The teams shook
hands and the victors were the police.
“We prepared for the match from A to Z,” said
Moti Alzirat, commander of the Misgav police station, whose
jurisdiction includes Sakhnin. “When I first came to the station
four years ago, the team’s playing field had been closed by order
of the previous station commander [for fear of disturbances]. It was
clear to me that for the people of Sakhnin, soccer was much more
than a game.” Alzirat reopened the field, and Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin,
which until then had been plodding along at the bottom of the Second
League, began to soar with the home court advantage restored to it.
The story of the relationship between Alzirat and
the local residents could easily become a Hollywood screenplay that
would break box office records. It began in October 2000, when
protest marches in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip turned into
riots, with rock-throwing, tire-burning, and blocking of roads. The
Arabs of the Galilee went out into the streets in solidarity with
their Palestinian brothers.
The three days of rioting claimed the lives of
twelve Israeli Arabs and one Jew. Five of those who died were from
the Sakhnin area, including two from Sakhnin itself. Three years
later, a government commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court
Justice Theodor Or, published a report that included severe
criticism of the functioning of the police.
Soon after the riots, Alzirat was brought in to
replace Guy Reif, who was commander of the Misgav police station at
the time. “I came into a serious crisis of confidence between the
citizens and the police,” he recalled. “On my first day, I took
the police van and went into Sakhnin. People looked at me in shock.
They didn’t believe I would come out alive.”
Alzirat pulled out a small thermos from behind his
desk and poured himself some black coffee. He had clearly adopted
the local customs. “Many personal conversations and meetings with
residents were needed in order to rebuild trust,” he said.
“Today, we’re in a completely different place.”
Throughout our conversation, the door to his office
remained open, and anyone who was passing in the corridor stopped to
say hello. The telephone rang constantly, and Alzirat replied to
everyone patiently and with a smile.
His deputy, David Ron, entered the room. A former
platoon commander in the paratroopers’ brigade, Ron has served in
the station since Reif’s time. “Moti’s readiness to get down
to the nitty-gritty and to speak with everyone at eye level is the
most significant change,” said Ron. “We work with a population
that is very traditional and patriarchal, with a great deal of
respect for the elderly, for clergy, and for dignitaries. Moti
mobilized those people, the tables turned, and we reached a new high
Alzirat began to tell me about the role of local
dignitaries in resolving disputes and preventing flare-ups. He was
full of enthusiasm. Suddenly he said, “You know what? I’ll
invite two of them in and you’ll see for yourself.” In a few
minutes, Abu Adham and Abu Younis entered the room and were greeted
with kisses. Alzirat poured coffee from his thermos into small
plastic cups and lit cigarettes for his guests.
“Sulha (resolving disputes) is a whole ceremony,
with ancient customs and clear-cut rules,” began Abu Adham, who
served as mayor of Sakhnin for many years. “Not everyone can
oversee it.” Abu Younis nodded in agreement and recited a long
list of those entrusted with this mission, most if not all people
who are known, trustworthy, and elderly.
“The ability to make peace is a gift from God,”
he added. “Moti often calls us in the middle of the night and
sends us to one neighborhood or another to calm things down. It can
be a quarrel between families over garbage cans, or a dispute over
land. In some cases, a murder had occurred and we had to make peace
between the sides. We’re always ready to help.”
Alzirat’s blue eyes glistened. He is plugged in to
the local residents with all his soul. He extends greetings on
holidays, visits bereaved families, attends celebrations, and helps
in crises. Many people with whom I spoke in Sakhnin mentioned the
respect he accords them. His door and heart are open, and the
residents pay him back in kind.
I looked at him and his visitors, joking around,
hugging, and suddenly everything came together in my mind.
“Peace is the dream of all of us, and that is the
only solution,” Ahmed Hlaele had told me before we parted. “And
how do you make it?” I asked. “As in life, so, too, in
politics,” he replied. “The strong, because they are strong,
must make concessions to the weak. You are the strong ones: be smart
and give in a little. Peace is worth it.”
His words echoed in my mind when I said goodbye to
Alzirat, Abu Adham, and Abu Younis, and when my car again hit a
pothole along the main road. They continued to echo in my mind as I
drove back to Tel Aviv, and stopped at a traffic light. “Hey,”
someone from the car behind me yelled. “It’s a green light, what
are you dreaming about?” I didn’t reply. n