One big goal for soccer, one small step for Arab Israelis

When Abbas Suan scored in the big game, he kept Israel's World Cup hopes alive - and garnered new respect for his fellow Arab Israelis.

Until this month, Abbas Suan, one of three Arabs on Israel's national soccer team, was heckled by thousands of prejudiced Israeli fans every time he touched the ball.

Now Israelis hail him as a hero. Down by one goal in the closing minutes of a World Cup qualifying match against Ireland, the 29-year old understudy midfielder let loose a lightning strike into the rear corner of the opposing net.

"One of the sweetest moments of my life,'' said Mr. Suan later.

But the significance of Suan's March 27 goal may go beyond the resuscitation of Israeli hopes to reach the World Cup finals for the first time in four decades. Civil rights activists say that Suan's feat may serve as milestone in the decades-long struggle of the country's sizeable Arab minority against discrimination.

"It's bigger than Abbas Suan,'' says Jafar Farah, who heads Mossawa, an Arab-Israeli civil rights organization.

During the four-and-a-half-year uprising of their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's Arab citizens - who comprise one-fifth of the population - have come under increasing strain. Clashes with police in October, 2000 left 12 dead. Several have been accused of driving suicide bombers to Israeli cities, strengthening Jewish fears of a potential fifth column.

But Suan's rescue of the team, says Mr. Farah, could change attitudes.

"Suddenly the Arab citizens of Israel are part of the scene - they've returned to the public debate, and not in a negative position,'' he says. "Suddenly the fact that Abbas Suan can bring a goal to the Israeli team can bring legitimacy to the Arab members of the Knesset.''

Just days later, Walid Badir, another Arab Israeli, salvaged a tie for the Israeli national team against France, again in dramatic fashion at the end of the game.

It wouldn't be the first time that minorities suffering from discrimination used the athletic field as a path to equality. In France, Zinedine Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants, helped soften attitudes toward the country's Muslim minority as a leader of the soccer team that won the 1998 World Cup.

One in three Israeli households watched the World Cup matches this past week. "The power of that goes beyond the goal,'' says Itzik Shanan, a spokesman for the New Israel Fund, which provides financial help to civil rights groups. "This is definitely a breakthrough. The major message is that the Arabs are sharing the same destiny and they should receive the same rights for their commitment here.''

Indeed, the Palestinians who remained inside the Jewish state after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war have always been viewed uneasily by the country's majority. Despite receiving citizenship, they found themselves under military rule until 1966.

Equal rights in voting haven't rippled to other sectors. In Jewish and Arab towns, a wide disparity exists in education and infrastructure. The top ranks of the civil service are nearly devoid of Arabs, but in the past year, the first Palestinian citizens were appointed to the Supreme Court and to lead a government ministry.

Still, observers warned that Suan's kick by itself won't transcend years of prejudice against Arab Israelis. "We have to put it into proportion. It's an important contribution, but it's modest," says Antwane Shalhat, an Arab Israeli who writes for the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam. "To fight discrimination you have to fight something deeper.''

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