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Arab-Israeli women break ground on pro soccer team

PETAH TIKVA, Israel (AP) — When the Israeli women's soccer team Hapoel Petah Tikva lost a number of its players to Israel's national team ahead of World Cup qualifiers, founder Rafi Subra made a decision that set the team apart from many of its rivals — he recruited from the Arab villages of northern Israel.

Arab Israelis, who complain of decades of discrimination in day-to-day life, are rare in the Israeli Women's Premier League — a small league that is often overlooked in the local sports scene. Meanwhile, the men's premier league is full of Arab-Israeli players.

For Hapoel Petah Tikva, the addition of five Arab-Israeli women has made waves in the league despite not being in the top rankings. "The fact is, they integrated well," Subra said. "They're happy. We're happy. The mix has been very successful."

The Arab minority make up about 20 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens. Many have relatives among the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, empathizing with Palestinians as they negotiate with Israel over making a future state. The strains especially become hard during times of violence between the two sides.

Though having full rights under Israeli law, Arab Israelis sometimes experience discrimination in the country. The soccer field is no exception. Noura Abu-Shanab, one of the Arab-Israeli players on Hapoel Petah Tikva, said she faced taunts like "dirty Arab" and "go back to where you came from" during games. However, she and other Arab-Israelis continued to play.

"The atmosphere of the team is positive," she said. Abu-Shanab said her Muslim family was supportive of her playing in a mostly-Jewish women's league after she turned pro at 16. Shiran Schlechter, an Israeli player on the team and its team manager, said both the Jewish and Arab players got along well during the season, which saw Hapoel Petah Tikva have a 5-2-7 record.

"It's funny because within the team we don't have" that hate, Schlechter said. "I think to our credit we all fought together against that. None of us liked it. It bothered us all." Abu-Shanab, who is now a team captain, agreed that despite the racism she had faced from other teams, there was no conflict within the team itself.

"There is no difference between Arab or Israeli players. We are united; like one hand," she said. The team's final match of the season will be played Tuesday against the Arab team of Bnei Sakhnin.

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