Fans of Bnei Sakhnin football team.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Bnei Sakhnin soccer team will be excluded from the Israeli Premier League for honoring fugitive former MK Azmi Bishara at the opening of a game, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat vowed Sunday.
“There is no doubt that there has been a long series of crimes [by Bnei Sakhnin] but this was the worst,” Livnat told Army Radio. “There needs to be a serious punishment.”
On Saturday night, before playing against Hapoel Tel Aviv, the Israeli Arab team held a ceremony thanking a wealthy man from Qatar for contributing $2 million to the team. Balad party representatives accepted the award, mentioning Bishara’s name.
Fans in the stands Saturday night waved banners reading “Jerusalem is ours,” with an illustration of the Temple Mount wrapped in a keffiyeh, and, “The police are whores.”
Bishara founded Balad and was an MK in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th Knessets.
He fled Israel in 2007 while under investigation for passing information to Hezbollah during the previous year’s Second Lebanon War. He lives in Doha, where he is the director of a think tank and is reportedly close to Qatar’s royal family, a major sponsor of Hamas.
Livnat wrote on Facebook that honoring Bishara is “not just another provocation.
[Bnei Sakhnin] crossed a true redline and acted in a way that does not belong on the football field or anywhere else.”
Knesset Interior Committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud) called for Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein to investigate Bishara’s contributions to the Israeli-Arab Bnei Sakhnin soccer team.
“It cannot be that the team and its fans will be allowed to continue anti-Israel activities. I expect that the attorney- general will accept my call to severely punish the team and give a clear instruction that such activities are not accepted on the soccer field,” she wrote on Facebook.
Regev added that the Culture and Sport Ministry is closing its eyes to the phenomenon of anti-Israel activity and that this is not the first time Bnei Sakhnin and its fans chanted racists statements against Israel.
Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka, who visited Bishara in Qatar during Operation Protective Edge, said that responses to Bnei Sakhnin honoring the fugitive are cheap attempts to mix sports and politics.
“Instead of attacking the team, politicians should make sure it has government funding, since it is in a difficult situation,” he said.
Zahalka recounted that he was asked not to accept the award for Bishara so that the ceremony would not be political.
The Balad MK criticized Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who called for Bnei Sakhnin to be suspended.
“Liberman’s sport is incitement against Arabs. He is not the first fascist who criticizes athletes according to their skin color. He does not miss any opportunity or means to incite, attack and spread poisonous hate and racism,” Zahalka said.
In addition, according to Zahalka, Liberman’s attack only made Bnei Sakhnin more popular among Israeli Arabs.
On Sunday morning, Premier League director-general Oren Hasson told Army Radio that he received a list of the people Bnei Sakhnin intended to honor ahead of the game, and Bishara was not on it, and that the league was taking the incident seriously.
However, Bnei Sakhnin chairman Muhammad Abu Yunis said he does not regret what the team did and is thankful to Bishara for helping it raise money.
“We don’t get money from the establishment and we are barely surviving. If we didn’t have money from Qatar we would not be able to open the league. The people who we honored are not donors, they are people who helped open the doors to Qatar,” Abu Yunis told Army Radio.