In early December of 2021, the Israeli Ministry of Economy moved to shut down the Doha Stadium, home field of the flagship Arab soccer team, Ittihad Abna Sakhnin.

Palestinian icon Handala waved by fans of Sakhnin. Date unknown. Image from the official Ultras Sakhnin 03 Facebook page.

This decision—prompted by a police accusation that the stadium had sold more tickets than was allotted by a pre-approved quota—brought to the surface deep rooted grievances over dispossession and discrimination among Sakhnin fans and their relationship to Israeli state authorities. Following the stadium’s closure, Ultras Sakhnin, the team’s major fan organization, released a new song on social media. Its melody was adopted from North African soccer fans, particularly of the Egyptian al-Ahly and the Moroccan Raja Athletic Club, who are known for their pro-Palestinian orientation. The song, “Crazy Soldier,” was quickly embraced by supporters in the stadium. The lyrics read, in part:


Oh – There is no law

I would sacrifice my life for you, Sakhnin, I am a crazy soldier

No matter how long the injustice lasts

Your victory, Sakhnin, would ease my distress

No matter how oppressive they are, and how they rule this country

No matter what they do, my love to the team will never fade

Even if they closed the Doha Stadium in Sakhnin

While forgetting that behind you there are thousands – from here up to China.


All my life I am with you, in victories and defeats

My soul, I would sacrifice my life for you, this is a duty – not a choice,

Even if the world is against you –

We have the Kuffiya and the dark skin

They forget that we are behind you

An audience all fired up.


The lyrics, imbued with militant and unapologetic Palestinian national symbolism of protest and struggle, reflect an emerging trend over the past 15 years: the collapse of the invisible wedge separating sports fandom and athletes from political protest in Israel.

The relatively recent efforts at explicit protest by Palestinian athletes and fans in Israel stands in sharp contrast to the arguments I made in my 2007 book, Arab Soccer in a Jewish State. The book’s arguments went as follows: Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel are overrepresented in the soccer sphere as players and as fans. In the highest professional levels of soccer, their achievements go far beyond those in most other competitive fields of Israeli public life. For most Palestinian fans in Israel, soccer has been an opportunity for displaying a common ground with Jewish citizens. Actions that emphasized Palestinian nationalism or political protest threatened the potential for rapprochement and therefore were excluded from the stadium. One of my interviewees in the book, a devoted fan of Sakhnin, summed up this approach with the following words: ‘‘What I want is that when a soccer team comes to Sakhnin, people will know that we are not violent. This is the image of Sakhnin in particular, and the image of the entire Arab sector.’’

Since the book was published, the achievements of Palestinian soccer players and clubs have become even more pronouncedIttihad Abnaa Sakhnin, now a flagship team for Palestinians in Israel, has only missed one season in the Israeli Premier League since 2007. The percentage of Israeli citizens playing in the Premier League who are Arab increased from 9.7 percent in the 2000s to 15.4 percent between 2011–2016, and their relative share in goals scored increased from 6.5 percent to 16.7 percent.[1] Meanwhile, the number of Arab players on the Israeli national team has risen from 3 in the 1990s to 10 between 2010–2017.[2] The 2022–2023 season will see two Arab teams playing in the Israeli Premier League (Sakhnin and Reine) for the first time since 2004. A third team (Kafr Qasim) was only one penalty kick away from making the league.

As Palestinian players and teams have continued to build momentum over the past decade, political protest and Palestinian national identity have grown more present in the stadium. This development stems from several interrelated local, regional and global factors. For one, the failure of Palestinians in Israel to achieve equality has led to disillusionment with sports as an exceptional arena for equality. Moreover, the emergence of social media has been accompanied by the globalization of fan culture. Palestinians have found particular inspiration in the model of politicized soccer that fans provided during the Arab uprisings.


The Myth of Sports as an Apolitical Sphere


The insincere demand to “separate sports from politics” is common in racially stratified societies and tends to surface when the oppressed group is attempting to use sports as a platform for protest. In South Africa, the demand to segregate politics from sports went hand in hand with continued support for racial segregation among white South Africans. A survey conducted among white South Africans in 1989, at the end of the apartheid era, found that only four percent supported a system in which “all vote for one parliament and the majority determine the laws.”[3] Yet, a clear majority, 69 percent, was ready to support complete racial mixing in sport in order to get South Africa back into the international sporting arena. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2018 found that half of Jewish citizens look unfavorably towards Arabs living in the same building as them, but only 15 percent were bothered by Arab soccer players representing Israel on the national team.[4] These polls betray a lack of fear among their respondents that integration based on equal opportunity in the sports field will spill over into other social fields and a corresponding sense that sports can be detached from the political arena. Recent developments, however, have undermined the taken-for-granted status of this perspective.

These polls betray a lack of fear among their respondents that integration based on equal opportunity in the sports field will spill over into other social fields and a corresponding sense that sports can be detached from the political arena.

Until recent years, most Palestinian athletes who starred in Israeli sports, as well as their fans, tended to avoid making clear political statements. The most pronounced exception only emphasizes the general pattern. At the beginning of the first intifada, in early 1988, female runners in a delegation from a high school in Sakhnin representing Israel in an international competition in Luxembourg refused to wear Israel’s uniform. The Hebrew press called their behavior “disgraceful” and “shameful,” while the Ministry of Education punished them with suspension from international competitions and national finals.[5] This largely forgotten episode was exceptional in the 1980s. Moreover, it took place in a relatively marginal sport involving women track and field athletes who had no clear pathway for turning their hobby into a professional livelihood. For male soccer players, even if the chance of becoming a professional was slim, in the 1980s there were already examples of what could be gained from obedience to the expectations of the establishment.

Rif’at Turk and Zahi Armeli, who began playing for the Israeli national team in 1976 and 1983, respectively, tried their best to stay away from controversial political issues and gained the full support of the soccer establishment. In 1985, when a Jewish player for the national team, Shlomo Kirat, told the press that Arabs should not represent the Jewish state in international soccer, the Israeli Football Association excluded him from the national team, signaling the inclusive orientation of Israeli soccer at the time.

A temporary alliance of interests formed between Palestinian soccer players and the Hebrew media. Athletes, who regularly suffered racial slurs in the stadium, did not publicly challenge the regime of Jewish supremacy. In return, they received recognition and praise from the media, granting them a way to the national team, exposure to international clubs and a successful career.


Failing to Achieve Equality Off the Pitch


In a society where the idea that the state belongs to all of its citizens sounds like an apocalyptic vision, sport has been given extra-territorial status. Through soccer, the Hebrew media and its consumers have, for decades, engaged in the illusion of normalcy, despite the occupation, killing, discrimination, dispossession and humiliation faced by Palestinians. Soccer is seemingly an arena of liberal equal opportunity in which Arab players can represent the State of Israel and Arab teams can win the State Cup. Yet the relative equality in the soccer sphere has been conditioned on the readiness of athletes and fans to avoid explicit political statements. The “separation” between sports and politics in Israel was in fact providing legitimacy for social separation and the regime of Jewish supremacy.

In 2004, when Sakhnin won the National Cup, Palestinian Knesset Member, Ahmad Tibi, wrote, “the message sent from the field will perhaps open doors that were slammed shut and locked in the face of Sakhnin, Umm al-Fahm, Taybeh, Rahat and Nazareth. These victories have their own dynamic.”[6]  On the same day, the Arab broadcaster Zuheir Bahlul averred, “sports in particular overcomes historic obstacles, eradicating stereotypes and prejudices.”[7]

The “separation” between sports and politics in Israel was in fact providing legitimacy for social separation and the regime of Jewish supremacy.
Despite the premature optimism apparent in the remarks of Tibi and Bahlul—not to mention the aspirations of Palestinian soccer players and fans who were careful not to bring overt politics into the game—there is no evidence yet that integration in the sphere of soccer contributes to the acceptance of Arabs by Jewish Israelis as citizens with equal rights. In fact, a recent study has shown that Jewish soccer fans express the same level of exclusionary attitudes toward Palestinian citizens as other Jewish citizens.[v8] Furthermore, since 2000, the gradual extension of Palestinian citizenship rights in Israel that characterized the Rabin government era (1992–1995) has been reversed.

In March 2011, Israel’s Knesset approved what became known as the Nakba Law, authorizing the Minister of Finance to halt public funding for organizations (read: Arab municipalities) who support the commemoration of “Israel’s Independence Day or the day of its establishment as a day of mourning.” In the same year, Jewish Knesset members initiated a Basic Law, proclaiming Israel as the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This law, which downgraded the status of Arabic as an official language and lent greater legitimacy to discriminatory policies against Palestinians’ constitutional status, was approved in 2018. Recent developments, combined with frustration over the failed emancipatory process of the 1990s, have pushed many Palestinians in Israel to reconsider their aspirations for integration, and with them, their stance on bringing overt political symbols into the soccer arena.[9]


The Global Context of Re-politicization


The last decade has seen a dramatic politicization of the sports sphere in different countries, including in Israel—a change that the Hebrew media and its consumers do not yet know how to digest. In Egypt, fans of the al-Ahly soccer team took an active role in the protests against the Mubarak regime that led to its toppling, providing a model for mobilizing the sport for political purposes.[10] In my conversations with Sakhnin Ultras, they explicitly mentioned the Ahly Ultras fanbase as a source of inspiration. In Syria, soccer goalkeeper Abdul Baset al-Sarout joined the rebels against Assad. His voice—as a player and a singer—became a symbol of the revolution, enduring even after his death in combat in 2019.

Read Carl Rommel on “Morocco’s Marginalized Youth and the Rise of Football Ultras” in MER issue 304.

In the United States, for the past eight years Black players in multiple sports and leagues have challenged the management of their teams in political protest. In November 2014, five St. Louis Rams players stepped onto the field making the “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in support of the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Michael Brown. This incident heralded a new era of anti-racist activism among athletes in the US. Its most famous manifestations include the NFL players who “take the knee” during the national anthem, which began in 2017, and the NBA playoff strike in 2020.  These regional and global examples have made overcoming the barriers between sport and political protest a more tangible possibility.

A crucial element in the politicization of soccer among Palestinian and Arab citizens of Israel was the emergence of Ultras Sakhnin. Originally a Brazilian, Serbian and Italian phenomenon, “Ultras” are informal fan organizations consisting of young, typically working-class men who usually share an anti-establishment orientation and transgressive tendencies. While Ultras Sakhnin was established in 2003, their adoption of social media one decade later opened a new and significant path for spreading their ideas and mobilizing fans.

In my book, I distinguished between Arabic-language sports journalists—who emphasized the Arab identity of players and teams, and used martial metaphors with specific references to Arab military successes against Israel—and mainstream fans, who tended to avoid the politicization of the soccer stadium and persisted in defining a soccer game between Arab and Jewish clubs as a struggle between two Israeli sport teams. The appearance of social media has undermined these old hierarchies of knowledge production and dissemination, blurring the line between journalists and fans. Fans now report live from the game with their own voice and own interpretation. As a result, public displays of Arab and Palestinian national pride and overt political mobilization around soccer, which was before only evident in the Arabic press, is now presented by fans themselves.


From Social Media to the Stadium


On March 17, 2015, an election day in Israel, Sakhnin Ultras uploaded a clip to their Facebook page in support of the Joint List. Often referred to as the “Joint Arab List,” this unprecedented political initiative, which saw four Arab parties joining forces for the first time, raised hope for Arab unity and increased political power. The clip featured a series of impressive goals the team had scored against Beitar Jerusalem—Sakhnin’s nemesis, known for its unapologetically racist stands of hard-core fans. These triumphant moments on the pitch were set to the music of the Joint List’s campaign song, “In the People’s Name.” At the end of the video, as the song continues to play, text paraphrasing a famous poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, reads: “Write down: I am an Arab / and my vote is WD’AM [the letter symbol of the Joint List in the elections] / we make history.” Darwish’s poem, “Raqam Hawiyya”—written in the 1950s under the military government endured by Palestinian Citizens between 1949–1966—highlights the proud stance of the Arab citizen in the face of the Israeli state’s attempt to undermine his identity. By using it in 2015, the Ultras were following the path of an Arab sports journalist who, years earlier, had used the same poem to promote a sense of Arab national pride around successful Arab teams.[11]

At the Doha Stadium, Hebrew, although in decline, remains prominent in chants, slogans and curses.  Conversely, the Sakhnin Ultras’ Facebook page operates almost exclusively in Arabic. Social media has created a public sphere in which Jewish Israeli fans are becoming less relevant. Though social media is under surveillance in Israel, and Palestinians have been arrested and convicted for content published online, the Ultras social media content has so far been tolerated. Social media, however, is not isolated from the stadium and the more radical content has a tendency to spill over into the physical world.

…building off of their strong presence online, fans have started coming to the stadium bearing unequivocal symbols of political protest like the Palestinian national flag and banners decorated with the Dome of the Rock or with slogans protesting specific government policies against Palestinian citizens.

Beyond social media, and building off of their strong presence online, fans have started coming to the stadium bearing unequivocal symbols of political protest like the Palestinian national flag and banners decorated with the Dome of the Rock or with slogans protesting specific government policies against Palestinian citizens. For example, in June 2013 the Knesset approved the “Prawer Plan,” sanctioning the forced displacement of some 40,000–70,000 Negev/Naqab Bedouin. A series of demonstrations in November 2013 forced the government to reconsider, and on December 17, 2013, at the beginning of a game between Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem in the Doha Stadium, Ultras deployed a giant banner with the slogan: “One voice, one people, steadfastly for Naqab.” Underneath the text, they drew a face covered with a Palestinian kaffiyeh and a hand holding a slingshot. This explicit visualization of physical resistance in the stadium would have been unimaginable one decade earlier.

Palestinian soccer stars on the Israeli national team have also started to publicly express their Palestinian identity and make explicit political statements using social media. For example, amid the May 2021 Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, following clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police in Jerusalem, Mu’nas Dabbur—a striker for the 1899 Hoffenheim club at the German Bundesliga and the Israeli national team—protested the behavior of the Israeli police on his Instagram account. Three other professional Palestinian players, including one on the national team, “liked” his post. Dabbur faced harsh criticism in the Hebrew media and from Jewish fans of the national team. In July 2022 he decided to leave the team, but this show of activism, and the support of Dabbur’s Palestinian teammates, signals a shift in the modus operandi of Palestinian soccer players.

Despite far-reaching changes in the field, Israeli and international media still frequently present soccer as the embodiment of a desirable model for Arab-Jewish co-existence. In the conclusion of my book, I wrote that the soccer arena holds the potential for blurring ethnic/national distinctions between Jews and Palestinians, not insignificant in a country where resources are divided in large part according to this distinction. For decades, while soccer served as an enclave in which relative equality did exist, this equality did not go beyond the pitch, and its symbolic power was exploited to distract attention from the dispossession and discrimination that continued to rule in most other spheres of life. In reality, soccer was never going to play an equalizing role in the absence of structural political changes aimed at eliminating ethnic hierarchy. A gap has always existed between the role politics plays in soccer and the public denial of this role. In a sense, the recent politicization of soccer, by exposing this gap, mitigates the danger of using the sport as a tool for distraction.


[Tamir Sorek is a Liberal Arts Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University.]


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This article appears in MER issue 304 ‘Football—Politics and Passions.’




[1] Tsviqa Na’im, “Kavod la-migzar,” Y-net, December 28, 2016.

[2] Tsviqa Na’im, “Ha-aviv ha-Arvi,” Y-net, October 26, 2017.

[3] Jan Hofmeyr, The Impact of Sanctions on South Africa: Whites’ Political Attitudes (Washington: Investor Responsibility Research Center, 1990), pp. 13-14.

[4] “Quick Survey: Jewish Israeli attitudes toward ‘The Other’ – Arab Israelis, December 2018,” (N=581), conducted by Panels LTD. Data provided by the Viterbi Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research and processed by the author.

[5] Yonatan Hallei, “Bnot sakhnin hurhaku le-shnatayim mi-yitsug Yisrael,” Maariv, April 26, 1988.

[6] Ma‘ariv, May 19, 2004, p. 13.

[v7] Yediot Aharonot, May 19, 2004.

[8] Tamir Sorek, “Sports and boycott: Attitudes among Jewish Israelis,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport  (2021).

[9] Sammy Smooha, Still Playing by the Rules: Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel 2017 (Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute and University of Haifa, 2018) [Hebrew text].

[10] Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021).

[11] Maher ‘Awawde, Kul al-‘Arab, February 25, 2000.

How to cite this article:

Tamir Sorek "The Re-Politicization of Palestinian Soccer," Middle East Report 304 (Fall 2022).

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