Israeli Soccer Team, a Model of Pluralism, Comes Undone Over Gaza War

REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
International Friendly – Northern Ireland v Israel – Windsor Park, Belfast, Britain – September 11, 2018 Israel’s Dia Saba

TEL AVIV – Until a few weeks ago, Dia Saba, 30, was one of the star players on Israel’s best – and most diverse – soccer team, Maccabi Haifa. The team, known as the Greens, is a mix of Arabs, Jews, Christians and Druze that has dominated the country’s premier league.

Saba, Maccabi Haifa’s attacking midfielder and forward, seemed an appropriate poster child for the Greens: a Palestinian citizen of Israel idolized by the 30,000 mostly Jewish fans that packed Sammy Ofer Stadium in northern Israel every week.

“An unlikely symbol of coexistence,” read a Haaretz headline about the team in August.

Then came the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s response.

Days after the attack, Saba’s wife, Narmin, expressed concern about civilian casualties in Gaza during Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign, which has killed more than 5,000 people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

“There are children in Gaza, too,” she wrote on Instagram.

Immediately, Maccabi fans and commentators went after Dia Saba online. Why hadn’t he publicly condemned the Hamas attack, or added to his wife’s post? Was he more concerned about Palestinian lives than Jewish ones? Among the 1,400 dead in Israel, some pointed out, were at least 44 Haifa fans.

It appeared that his days on the team – which he had led to an Israeli Premier League championship and a qualification for the UEFA Europa group stage this year – were numbered.

“My opinion is Saba should never wear the shirt of Maccabi Haifa again,” Yaniv Katan, a former Haifa star and perhaps the most popular player in the team’s history, said on his radio show. “Saba, go to Turkey, go to Qatar – they will welcome you.”

After the Hamas attack, Israel’s small pockets of coexistence between Jews and Arabs almost instantly unraveled. Dozens of Palestinian Israelis have been arrested for social media posts that authorities claim “incite violence.” There have been reports of teachers suspended; homeowners removed from community chat groups; a singer detained when she filed a complaint at a local police station.

Now, even Israel’s integrated soccer teams are showing signs of breaking apart.

Not all clubs have embraced integration. Beitar Jerusalem, for example, has never signed an Arab player in its 87-year history. Some of its hardcore fans refer to the team as “forever pure.” Maccabi Haifa, by comparison, maintained both a diverse team and fan base, in part because of the team’s location in a historically mixed city.

“We cooperated on the soccer field more than anywhere else,” said Zouheir Bahloul, a former Palestinian Israeli lawmaker and a well-known soccer commentator.

But Bahloul said Israeli Jewish fans often judge Arab players for not condemning terrorist attacks harshly enough, or for appearing to convey more sympathy for Palestinian victims than Jewish ones. That’s what happened in Saba’s case, he said.

“The Jewish public demands the Arab community condemn without talking about what happens in Gaza after – [the] bombing and killing of women and children,” he said.

A few days after his wife’s post, Saba published an apology on his own Instagram account.

“She thought she was conveying a message of reconciliation and peace. She did it in good faith, but she was wrong and for that I am sorry,” he wrote. He did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment.

But many Haifa fans had already written to the team’s management asking for Saba to be released. Others condemned him on social media as a Hamas sympathizer.

“Maccabi Haifa’s fans are very influential, and when they go against a certain player, it’s usually very hard for him to stay in the club,” said a team official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “This is a very sensitive time in the country, and it is an issue that we will need to think through, hear how the player sees his future here, and make the right decision.”

Reached by phone, Yaakov Shahar, the team’s owner, said he would not discuss the situation.

“What is going on with our players is between us,” he said.

Dudu Bazak, a spokesperson for the team, wrote in a column on that Maccabi Haifa needed to devote itself to Israeli casualties and the war effort.

“The club needs to focus today more than ever on the community, the fans and families whose kids were killed, and to strengthen the soldiers on the front,” he wrote.

Other Palestinian Israeli players were more vocal than Saba about the frustration of being asked to condemn a group they are not a part of, and an attack they had nothing to do with.

Mohammad Abu Fani, who was a member of Maccabi Haifa for years and still plays on the Israeli national team, denounced the Hamas attack but said he was tired of Arab players being falsely linked to militant violence.

“Every time there is an event like this, they ask for Arabs to condemn the event like we are responsible, and this is unacceptable,” he wrote in an Instagram post.

It wasn’t the first time Abu Fani had discussed the difficulty of playing for Israel as a Palestinian. Earlier this year, he described fans screaming “terrorist” at him during a game.

In the wake of the Dia Saba controversy, some Maccabi Haifa fans stood by a belief in pluralism, saying they believed the Palestinian players should be forgiven.

“I don’t think players should express political views at all,” said Itshak Haberman, a longtime supporter. “I truly don’t understand all these demands on Arab players to condemn.”

Some of Saba’s teammates struggled publicly with their own feelings about him.

Dolev Haziza, a midfielder for Maccabi and the Israel national team, said he recognized that Saba and other Palestinian Israelis face pressure from their own communities.

“People need to understand their side. Where they live, there are villages with quite a few extremists,” Haziza told

But he said that didn’t justify the silence of his teammates in the aftermath of the Hamas attack.

“Sometimes they avoid condemning and I think it’s not right because it’s a terrorist organization,” he added.

Some of the team’s most fervent fans argued that there could be no reconciliation with Saba. They promised to boo him if he ever appeared at another game.

“He earned it,” said Yohay Shkeo, 36, a lifelong fan of the team. “Nobody will cry if he leaves now.”