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Football and the wall: The divided soccer community of Jerusalem

By James Montague, CNN
  • Jerusalem divided between Palestinian and Israeli football teams
  • CNN followed Palestinian champions Jabal al Mukaber and Israeli giants Beitar Jerusalem
  • Jabal al Mukaber hail from East Jerusalem
  • Beitar famous for links with Likud and hardcore fan base who chant anti-Arab songs

Jerusalem (CNN) -- They are two football teams from the same city, based just a few miles apart but who play in different worlds.

Beitar Jerusalem -- Israel's most popular team -- and Jabal al Mukaber -- Palestinian champions of east Jerusalem -- play either side of the wall that separates the two communities in the city.

Though neighbors in the same town, they will never play each other in a game, as the divisions of Middle East are played out in microcosm. Beitar -- notorious for its anti-Arab fan base -- has the carrot of UEFA Champions League football dangled in front of it; the Palestinian side is lucky to be allowed to fulfill its fixtures on the other side of the separation barrier.

Both played on the same weekend; two teams, leagues apart. Jerusalem can be a confusing place of division and barriers, ostracized neighborhoods and communities living cheek by jowl without knowledge of the other's existence.

As the first direct peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians in over two years begin, nothing highlights the divisions, and the common ground, more than Jerusalem's two biggest football teams, who live in each other's shadow with different opponents, different religions, different languages and different economic fortunes.

Video: Another kick in the wall

They are also divided by footballing bureaucracy, as much as by any physical barrier: Palestine is part of the Asian Football Confederation, Israel a member of Europe's governing body UEFA.

Jabal al Mukaber is the biggest of as many as ten Palestinian football teams that hail from Jerusalem. They are not allowed to play any of their games at home and instead have to travel through the separation barrier to the Faisal al Husseini stadium in Al Ram for the start of the West Bank Premier League.

I don't have a wife, I don't have children, all I have is Beitar. Why are they trying to take this away from me?
--Beitar Jerusalem fan

One hour before the start of the season and the Faisal al Husseini stadium is dark, empty and silent. Outside, a broken street light flickers intermittently, periodically revealing the impotent slogans of resistance covering the separation barrier that runs just meters from the home of Palestinian football.

The stationary gloom is only broken by a falafel seller -- busily kneading balls of chick pea in anticipation of the opening match between Jabal al Mukaber and Al-Bireh, their rivals from nearby Ramallah -- and the grounds man, smoking a cigarette and nodding sagely.

"Ramadan," he offered, by way of explanation before turning on the floodlights. "Don't worry; they will come." The fans trickled in, slowly at first before thousands arrived once fasting had finished.

"It should take twenty minutes over there," pointed Mohammed Ewsat, a Jabal al Mukaber fan who had arrived after iftar to watch his team play. "We are making a big diversion to get here, it takes maybe an hour and a half, and then we do the same after the game."

Ever since Jibril Rajoub, who famously ran Yasser Arafat's West Bank security apparatus with an iron fist, was appointed head of the Palestinian Football Association, football in the West Bank has seen something of a reversal of fortune.

Three years ago road blocks made it impossible for any regular league matches between teams in the West Bank to take place. Even if the teams did make it through, the referee usually didn't.

Now the league, with a smattering of professional clubs, is into its second season, whilst the building of the national stadium two years ago was itself a massive coup.

But for teams like Jabal al Mukaber, who come from the wrong side of the wall, football is still dominated by roadblocks and hardship.

They hail from their eponymous district of south east Jerusalem, where the golden Dome of the Rock -- which adorns the club's badge -- can still be seen. In Israel the district is feared for its alleged extremism and links to terrorism. As the players warmed up, more fans stream in after getting through the roadblocks.

"It's good to make something beautiful in this life. And we have nothing like sport to make something beautiful in our lives," Mohammed continued when asked whether he begrudged the journey he had to take to watch the champions.

Just as he finished, the stand fell silent as the team approached the fans. Before every match, the Jabal al Mukaber players pray with their supporters, reciting the first verse from the Quran.

"This is my country and my club," Mohammed continued, before joining the players and crowd to play. "Sport gives us some hope, of another life. Maybe it's not a very important thing [to you] but we feel there is not anything in our life that is good [but Jabal al Mukaber]."

Jerusalem's other team exists in a parallel universe of comparative plenty. That same weekend, four miles away, the Teddy Kollek Stadium prepares for its first game of the season: Beitar Jerusalem versus Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Israeli Premier League.

Sport gives us some hope, of another life. We feel there is not anything in our life that is good
--Jabal al Mukaber fan

It could grace any European capital city. Its wide boulevards and (kosher) hot dog stalls are full of excited young fans with equally as excited fathers, clutching tickets costing 80 sheckles, twenty times what it would cost to go and see Jabal al Mukaber.

Israeli soldiers wrapped in yellow and black scarves over their green khaki uniforms march towards the merchandise stalls. Street hawkers sell what they can before being moved on.

One is selling Beitar Jerusalem branded kippahs. Next to him an Orthodox rabbi sells religious CDs. Beitar boasts, according to some estimates, over a million supporters. It also has a strong right-wing political identity and is closely aligned with Likud.

It boasts Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and current prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu as fans. Yet there is also a darker side. It is renowned in Israel for its violent, far-right fans, especially the ultra group La Familia, who regularly chant "death to the Arabs".

No Arab or Muslim has ever played for the club. When it was mooted that the Israeli international Abass Suan -- an Israeli Arab -- was to sign for Beitar, the fans rioted outside the stadium and the move was cancelled.

Over the past few seasons the Israeli Football Association has docked the club points and banned the supporters from the Teddy for chanting anti-Islamic songs. La Familia responded by breaking into the IFA's offices, daubing death threats against the president in paint on its walls.

When an Israeli journalist made a film about the club's supporters last year, her home was attacked and several arrests made. "This is the team of the people...known for [being on] the right. These are the people who love their country, who fought in the wars," explains Adel, an erudite Beitar fan in smart designer clothes watching the game.

"It's not like everybody hates the Arabs, but everybody agrees it is our country, that we came here first and we have the right for this country." Before kick off, an army of children hand out leaflets from the police, urging the fans to give up their violence.

In return they would then allow stewards, rather than the authorities, to patrol the stadium. La Familia, however, are livid that the club would work with the police against the fans, and hand out their own leaflets, threatening to turn the ground into a "cemetery" in protest.

"We have a little problem with the club, who wants to work with the police and get the fans out of the stadium," explained Guy, a Beitar fan and member of La Familia supervising the hand out. "This is not acceptable. This club is ours, it's our dreams and it's our life."

"I don't have a wife, I don't have children, all I have is Beitar. Why are they trying to take this away from me?" Jerusalem's two teams experienced contrasting fortunes on the pitch too.

Jabal al Mukaber eased to a 2-0 victory; Beitar succumbed to a late, result-deciding goal. With the police watching it wasn't until after the final whistle when the two worlds collided.

On the bus home a group of young fans hurled abuse at an Arab woman in her 50s and her young daughter. "They are singing 'Arabs go home', 'Arabs are stupid'," whispered a young female Israeli settler, traveling back to her home near Jericho.

The group, ten strong, chant louder and louder. One throws a packet of sunflower seeds over the woman. She sits silently, head slightly bowed.

Everyone on the bus -- tourists, football fans, American students alike -- all look the other way.