For years, Abas Suan and Walid Badir endured racist taunts from the fans. Now they are the toast of the predominantly Jewish state.

Badir scored Israel's only goal in a 1-1 tie with France on Wednesday in a World Cup qualifying match, repeating Suan's feat in a Saturday match against Ireland, keeping Israel in contention for a slot in the prestigious tournament.

The two are among Israel's minority Arabs, who make up about 20% of Israel's 6.8 million people and describe themselves as second-class citizens, targets of discrimination in employment, education and living conditions.

Divide

Their rage has spilled over from time to time, but conversely, four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence has kindled Jewish anger against them for identifying with their relatives in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most Israeli soccer teams have Arab players, and often they are greeted with racist chants when they touch the ball. Suan heard the epithets when he played for Israel's national team in a recent match in Jerusalem. "No Arabs, no terrorism," goes one of the slogans.

Now that the two Arab players have rescued Israel's World Cup hopes, there's a new slogan featured in headlines in Israeli newspapers: "No Arabs, no goals."

"As Arabs we're normally pushed away from the Israeli political issues, and then suddenly we're pulled into this ultra-national patriotism"

Ahmad Tibi
Israeli Arab member of parliament

Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli Arab member of parliament, said there are mixed feelings among Arabs about rooting for Israel in the fervor following the goals by Suan and Badir.

"As Arabs we're normally pushed away from the Israeli political issues, and then suddenly we're pulled into this ultra-national patriotism," Tibi said.

Temporary healing

The euphoria and goodwill of the moment may be fleeting, said Zuhaeir Bahlul, an Israeli Arab who broadcasts sports for Israel Radio and TV and is known for his sophisticated turns of the Hebrew phrase.

Part of the problem is how Israel Arabs fit into Israel, dominated by its Jewish majority.

Bahlul said when Israeli Arabs see the athletic heroics of Suan and Badir, they feel more a part of Israel. But sport creates a virtual reality, he said, generating successful examples for Arabs while doors continue to close for those trying to progress in other areas.

"If the state can create more opportunities in other fields, this type of inspiration gives Arabs the confidence to make things happen for themselves," Bahlul said.

Badir, a tall, rangy defender, burst into the penalty area and headed a bullet shot past famed French goaltender Fabien Barthez, salvaging a tie score.

World Cup dream

Badir's first comments were about his sport. "You have to give 200% in your job. I'm doing my best to fulfil my dream of reaching the World Cup," he said.

"You have to give 200% in your job. I'm doing my best to fulfil my dream of reaching the World Cup"

Walid Badir,
member of Israeli football team

But his family's history in Israel is tainted by conflict and tragedy. His grandfather was one of about 50 Arabs killed by Israeli border police in 1956 at the Arab town of Kafr Qasim in an incident described by Jewish Israelis as a terrible mishap and by Arabs as a massacre.

Yet Badir stands at attention with the rest of the Israeli national soccer team as the Israeli anthem is sung before games, with its lyrics about Jews returning to their ancient land. It makes him uncomfortable.

At a conference on racism in soccer last year, Badir hoped that one day the anthem would incorporate something that represents him as an Arab Israeli.

"Then I'll be able to sing it as well," he said.

Suan hopes the goodwill can endure, and he feels he has made a contribution.

A native of Sakhnin, an Arab town in the northern part of the country, Suan said that through sports, athletes can set an example by relating to each other through friendship and
dialogue.

"I think we get along better than politicians do," Suan said.