Israel’s manipulation of soccer violence dissected in new book

Magid Shihade’s new book Not Just a Soccer Game is a thorough exploration of internecine conflict among Palestinian citizens of Israel, using a series of violent events in 1981 as a foundational point of analysis that leads to a wide-ranging assessment of failed Israeli state policies vis-á-vis its Arab minority.

The title of the book describes a 1981 soccer match between two clubs representing the largely Druze town of Julis and the largely Christian town of Kafr Yassif (which also has a significant Muslim population). A brawl — the origin and major participants of which were unclear due to its large and chaotic nature — broke out during the match, in which one Druze and one Christian, from Julis and Kafr Yassif respectively, were killed. A villager from Julis, whose residents serve in the Israeli military, exploded a hand grenade during the fight. Shihade, a native of Kafr Yassif, was at the game (though he didn’t participate in the brawl) and also witnessed the subsequent attack on Kafr Yassif. A few days after the match, a mob from Julis entered Kafr Yassif, causing widespread property damage and killing two persons.

Zionist explanations disdained

Despite Shihade’s close ties to the two towns and his presence in Kafr Yassif during the violence, he takes great care not to assign blame to specific individuals or to religious motivations. Shihade disdains the cultural explanations for Arab violence (often proffered, as in this case, by Israeli officials as a way to make sense of Arab disquiet without having to confront the foundational role of Zionist colonization), instead focusing on the many structural variables that informed the reaction of the Druze mob that assaulted Kafr Yassif. Indeed, he emphasizes the fact that Julis and Kafr Yassif have historically enjoyed excellent relations. Those excellent relations, Shihade argues, played an important role in the aftermath of the soccer brawl: “the Kafr Yassif-Julis incident was just one manifestation of a long-standing [Israeli] state strategy to stir up intercommunal tensions and foment violence among Palestinian Israeli citizens” (8).

In fact, fomenting violence among Druze and Christian Palestinians “had larger political implications, as given developments in the region, the state wanted tensions between Arab communities in Israel to spill over to the situation in Lebanon at the time” (8). Shihade uses interviews, archival research and close analysis of contextual state policies to illustrate conclusively that Israel was not only complicit in the attack on Kafr Yassif but a direct participant, orchestrating the mob violence and facilitating its rampage by offering logistical support. The brawl at the soccer match was spontaneous in the usual manner of sporting violence but Israeli officials capitalized on the possibility the brawl presented to whip up sectarian furor.

There is much to laud in this exemplary book, but I especially like Shihade’s methodology, an unorthodox approach that I wish more scholars of Palestine (and indeed of the entire Southern Hemisphere) would employ. Excoriating the traditions of the academy, where the contributions of Western figures overwhelm the production of knowledge by non-Western sources, Shihade turns not to European or North American sources but to Ibn Khaldoun, the great fourteenth century Tunisian-born thinker, noting that “using his work here is a way to give credit to his visionary thought as well as to acknowledge the heritage of global knowledge production built over thousands of years” (xxiii).

Little faith in nation-state

I would describe Shihade’s methodology as indigenist — inclined toward the needs and traditions of indigenous peoples — in that he expresses little faith in the nation-state as a site of justice and disdains the Eurocentric terminologies that inform much modern scholarship and activism. He prefers instead to emphasize the elements of culture and politics that illuminate Palestinian society from within its own histories. This approach allows Shihade to reject the belief that the Israeli state (or any nation-state) exists to procure justice for its citizens.

An element of the Palestinian tradition Shihade highlights is that of sulha, the indigenous mode of conflict resolution that was attempted unsuccessfully by Julis and Kafr Yassif following the fight at the soccer match. Sulha requires aggrieved parties to meet in the presence of elders and officials in order to resolve conflicts through mediation.

According to Shihade, the attempted sulha between the two villages was sabotaged by intervention from the Israeli police and various government officials, who would have preferred conflict to rapprochement. He believes that a proper sulha would have prevented the attack on Kafr Yassif and allowed the two villages to resume their friendly relations. Shihade presents a plethora of evidence that makes it clear his belief is not merely founded upon optimism but on a careful assessment of Israeli state policy vis-á-vis the actual interests of the Palestinian minority.

While less has been published in English about Palestinian citizens of Israel than about the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, even less work exists on the internal relations of Israel’s multiconfessional Palestinian minority. Not Just a Soccer Game is a fantastic addition to this small but crucial body of scholarship. Although the book most obviously fits into the category of Middle East Studies, it will also be valuable to those interested in peace studies, conflict resolution, anthropology, sociology, ethnic studies, critical race theory, history and indigenous studies.

I urge those concerned with any dimension of Palestinian life to purchase Not Just a Soccer Game. Shihade writes in a plain style free of jargon, appropriate for scholars, general readers and anybody curious about a little-discussed element of Palestinian society. His analysis is first-rate and his indigenist methodology an outstanding contribution to the scholarship of Palestine. This is one of the best books I’ve read all year, if not the best. I learned all kinds of new things about Palestinian life, while becoming a much stronger advocate of the need to discuss Palestine on the terms of its own histories and not based on how it has been constructed by various Western mythologies. Shihade’s brilliant analysis of sulha alone makes Not Just a Soccer Game worth its price.

This review originally misspelled the names of the villages Kafr Yassif and Julis. The review has been corrected.

Steven Salaita is the author of several books, most recently of Israel’s Dead Soul.