The rivalry between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin is one of the biggest rivalries in Israel. It's not just a political rivalry, but also has nationalist and religious aspects. It recaps the complicated situation of the society and the state.
In recent years, everyone has tried to make these matches calmer, but only a decision to impose a policy of away fans ban was the solution that everyone believed that will be enough.
Nowadays, both teams may face a new era in their rivalry, after an unusual decision by the owners of both clubs. What made them believe that making a change is possible?
The differences between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin are huge, as both of the clubs are representing two opposites of Israeli politics and society.
Beitar Jerusalem is one of the biggest clubs in Israel. With fans from all over the country, the team was recognized from its beginning with the political right wing. During the club's biggest rise in the 70's and the 80's, the club was linked to Likud, the leading right-wing party in Israel.
Yet, something has changed in recent years. Beitar supporters' group, La Familia, became stronger and much more vocal. La Familia was linked to the far-right wing and led a strong nationalist and racist agenda. While it became more common to see Arab players in the Israeli league, Beitar Jerusalem remained the last club that has never signed such a player. La Familia opposes not only Arab players but also for any Muslim player. In 2005, there was a protest against Ndala Ibrahim, a Muslim Nigerian player, and even a bigger protest occurred in 2013, while Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, two Chechen players were signed by the club.
On the other side, Bnei Sakhnin is one of the rising clubs in the Israeli football. After the unsuccessful attempt of Hapoel Taibe in 1997, Bnei Sakhnin became the leading Arab Israeli club since their first top-flight season in 2004. They were relegated only once but won promotion back after only one season.
In their first years, Bnei Sakhnin was a complete symbol of harmony and coexistence. In 2004, the club won its first major trophy, the Israeli State Cup. The squad was a mixed combination of Arab and Jewish players and they presented a different point of view for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As years went by, Bnei Sakhnin became more and more of a political power. People fell in love with the idea of being not only an Arab symbol but also a Palestinian symbol. The club was funded more than once by Qatar, a state that doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel. Additionally, their stadium was built through a Qatari funding and was named Doha Stadium after the Qatari capital.
The fans got used to their new role. You could see more and more Palestinian flags among the crowd and they were part of several controversial incidents such as whistling during a minute of silence for a soldier and making a tifo of Handala, a caricature of the eternal Palestinian refugee.
The clashes between Beitar Jerusalem fans and Bnei Sakhnin fans became violent. There were fights between the fans more than once, and some of them ended with several injured people. The police have even arrested fans in these clashes, but it wasn't enough to avoid the next incident.
The next step the police made was to isolate the away fans in their arrival to the opponents' stadium. The fans were forced to arrive to a specific location, usually forests far from the stadium, and they were transited to the stadiums by buses, accompanied by police cars and helicopters. Unfortunately, it made the situation worse,as the fans arrived to the stadium in an even more angry and violent mood.
In 2016, in a joint decision made by both teams and the Israeli Pro Football League board, there was an agreement for a complete away fans ban. It was the first time that such ban was imposed in Israel, a decision that marks this rivalry as maybe the most violent clash in the local football.
A new spirit was spread among Beitar Jerusalem fans last summer. The economic future of the club looked a bit uncertain until a new owner bought the club, Moshe Hogeg. The 37 year old entrepreneur invested almost 30 million NIS in the team (app. 8 million USD), but he knew that one of the biggest problems that he will face is the fans.
Hogeg met with La Familia people and talked with them about his plans. A few days later, La Familia made a surprising statement, as they called fans to avoid any racist chants. Their trust in Hogeg made them, at least for now, change their behavior a bit.
This was a great basis for Hogeg's recent meetings with Bnei Sakhnin owner, Muhammed Abu Younes, in order to discuss the return of away fans to the stadiums. Both sides were optimistic and now it will be their chance to prove that they didn't make any mistake.
Even though it was look like a peace agreement ceremony, the joint declaration for abolishing the away fans ban was made in the President's House in Jerusalem. It was maybe the best place for such an event. The current president, Reuven Rivlin, founded a project named Tikva Israelit (Israeli Hope), a project that promotes coexistence and fair play in football. With the sponsorship of that project, the new era of this rivalry may begin.
Nobody promises us that the first match between the teams will be clean of racism and violence, but both club owners believe that it's possible. "The match in Monday will mark the beginning of respect, cooperation and the shared love for football," said Hogeg in the event, adding that "This is our first stop in order to make a change and I believe in that". His colleague Abu Younes said that "it's important that our fans will understand that these matches are not about life or death, we all come to enjoy".
Now it's time for the fans to show that there is a real change. If it will happen, the dreams of Abu Younes and Hogeg may come true.