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Palestinian Soccer Team Lifts Pride With Leap Into Israel's Top League

The sun is sinking quickly, and in the dim light, the soccer team struggles to get in a few more minutes of practice time. Finally, when even the white ball is undiscernible, the coach called his players off the field.

"Lights, you know? Lights would make things a lot easier," says Abed Haj-Yahiyyah, shaking his head and walking down the field to praise the team for its hard work.

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Lights, and perhaps some turf on the field. And an access road, and some bleachers - the Hapoel Taybeh soccer team could use quite a few things. This run-down stadium at the end of a mud track through a garbage dump is hardly a worthy setting for a team that's in the Israeli National League.

But for a team that's got as much going against it as Taybeh, with woes from the financial to the fanatic, the dilapidated club grounds seem somehow fitting. Taybeh (pronounced TAI-bay) is the first Arab team to make the National League in Israel.

"We make our people proud," says Mr. Haj-Yahiyyah, president and general manager of the club. Palestinians make up about 20 percent of the population of Israel, and they are the poorest group, with an average income half that of Jewish Israelis.

The town of Taybeh, for example, has few paved streets, and many areas lack electric service. "As a minority in Israel, for us to be in the National League, it shows we are equal, that we can reach every position in this country," Haj-Yahiyyah says.

There was euphoria in Palestinian-Israeli communities last spring at news that Taybeh would be bumped up to the top league, although players thought they might get a frosty reception.

But Capt. Auda Bahjat says he never expected this: When he faced off against the captain of the league's top team in Jerusalem, his opponent had a vicious greeting waiting for him. "He looked me in the eye," recalls Mr. Bahjat, "and he said 'You should have been in the mosque when Baruch Goldstein started shooting. I'm sorry he didn't kill you, too.' "

Baruch Goldstein was an Israeli who killed 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron in 1994. The player who invoked him, Eli Ohana, heads the Beitar Jerusalem team, which is affiliated with the hard-line Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Asked repeatedly by this reporter if he made the remark, he wouldn't deny it.

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When Taybeh played Beitar in Jerusalem that day, rowdy fans screamed "Death to Arabs," and sang a song in praise of Goldstein (whom most Israelis consider a pariah). Such hostility is unusual - only Likud-team fans respond to Taybeh this way - but the Jerusalem game was an abrupt reminder of the hostilities.

Taybeh (a club affiliated with the left-wing Labor Party of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres) now stands 16th in a league of 16 teams. For Haj-Yahiyyah, it's a miracle they have made it into the league at all. Taybeh has a total payroll of $1 million, less than a fifth that of the championship Tel Aviv team. Haj-Yahiyyah notes that while all the other teams in the league have saunas and masseurs, Taybeh doesn't have a shower room.

For the players, this year in the top league has been a lesson in sportsmanship. "To be a soccer player, you must be a sportsman, be polite, be a man," says Captain Bahjat. "That's all I think about when they say things like 'Kill the Arabs.' "

Occasionally Taybeh's fans haven't helped in the team's efforts at sportsmanship. At one recent game, there were a few cries from the Arab-Israeli fans of "Death to Jews."

Taybeh does have three Jewish players and according to Haj-Yahiyyah, the Jewish and Arab players are "like brothers." Midfielder Avi Paz, who is Jewish, says it "feels good" to be playing in Taybeh - a town he probably wouldn't have visited if he wasn't recruited by the team. "This is not about Arabs or Jews, it's about playing soccer. Fans can say what they want," he says.

Paz's fellow halfback, Palestinian Shadi Abu Dieb, is hoping that if his team stays in the league, fans will get used to its presence "and get over it."

"I'm sorry about the things they say," he says, recalling the Jerusalem game. "But the Israelis just can't leave politics out of it," he says. "It's sort of sad."

The best revenge, he believes, will be for Taybeh to stay in the league. "If we're good enough, they'll forget if we're Arabs or Jews. That's what will make us equal.

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