JERUSALEM -- Far from the violence roiling the streets of the Gaza Strip, Israeli Arabs yesterday celebrated an unprecedented victory, spurring an outbreak of joyous song and an unusual display of conciliation.
A soccer team of Arab, Jewish, and foreign players (Goalkeeper is Koko Kamara from Ghana ) from the Arab town of Sakhnin, in Galilee in northern Israel, won the State Cup on Tuesday night -- the first victory for an Arab-dominated team in Israel's top league since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. In previous years, Jewish-owned teams have always won the cup.
Euphoria swept over Arabs throughout Israel. They blocked main country roads, whistling and chanting to salute the team as it returned from the town of Ramat Gan on the way home to Sakhnin after the match. Later, thousands of people from neighboring Arab villages poured into the streets of Sakhnin, a town of 23,000, shooting off fireworks, dancing and singing.
The words of a new tune composed to honor the team resonated at the house of Hasan Abu Saleh, an Arab administrator for the Sakhnin team.
''This is a historic day. The Arab leaders should come to Sakhnin and see how Jews and Muslims live together, drink and eat together, and play together," Abu Saleh said. ''We can make peace by sport; this is our message to the Israeli government and to the Arab leaders," he said.
Yesterday, the Sakhnin team named their trophy the ''Peace Cup." The victory allows them to play next August against European teams in a major tournament.
''We are Arab Palestinians. We carry Israeli passports, we won the State Cup, and we will represent Israel in Europe. We always talk about disasters that were inflicted on us, but today we speak about a victory. It is not only a victory for Sakhnin and for the 1.2 millions Arabs in Israel, but also a victory for peace," Abu Saleh said.
Mayor Muhammad Bashir echoed those feelings: ''We have proven to the world that the Arabs in Israel are not camel riders but are part of modern civilization.
''Every Arab should feel proud of our achievement," Bashir said.
Sakhnin won five matches in two months on the road to the final. In the last 12 years, the team has advanced gradually from low-level performance to become one of the top 12 teams in Israel. The team is comprised of 14 Arabs, 7 Jews and 4 foreigners, from Poland, Cameron, Brazil, and Ghana.
In the final, more than 30,000 fans watched their team crush Hapoel Haifa 4-1 in a second-half blitz, having trailed 1-0 after the first half. Lion Assoulin, a Jewish player, scored two goals. The club's fans erupted in jubilation after President Moshe Katsav handed the trophy to Sakhnin.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the club owners to congratulate them and to promise $1.5 million to help the cash-strapped team build a new stadium. The club says it runs a $1 million deficit every year, and operates on less than a quarter of the budget of the top Tel Aviv teams. The best player on the team earns half the salary of a major club.
The club owners appealed to Arab leaders to contribute to the Sakhnin team to cover the costs of playing in the European tournament.