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 Not Quite Zurich
 Sakhnin in the Galilee
 By Galit Hoffman
 (ERETZ no 93. April-May 2004)
 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 Israeli life.

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 undergoing demolition.

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 unemployment benefits.

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 the situation.

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 oil.”

“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 forever.”

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 dream.

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 in relations.”

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



 Sakhnin Mosque at dusk


 Football is everything in Sakhnin