October 27, 2017
In 1963 Hamze Yunes was a rising boxing star and represented his Israeli sports association, Beitar, in international competitions. Eight years later, in 1971, he was captured in the Mediterranean Sea while commanding a group of Palestinian naval guerillas on their way to kidnap Israeli soldiers. In 1974, he became a Palestinian national hero after an escape from an Israeli jail to Lebanon. Hamze’s life story, from Israeli boxing star to Palestinian guerrilla, is not only material for a Hollywood action film, it is also a compelling case study that illustrates how the relationship between sports and politics depends on personal biographies and the social location of the actors involved.
The integrative orientation of Arab boxing in Israel
Arab athletes in Israel, and boxers in particular, have rarely taken part in political protests like the recent kneeling protests of NFL players in the United States. This “a-political” character has deep historical roots. Under the Military Government1 (1948-1966), Israeli authorities cautiously encouraged muscular empowerment of Arab youth as long as it was considered a distraction from subversive political activity. At the same time, the combative nature of some sports made them a subject of close surveillance. Under these circumstances, the only way for Arab boxing to survive was by obfuscating any nationalist connotation.
Starting in the 1980’s, Arabs gained complete domination in boxing in terms of participation, achievements, and representation in administrative positions. In the 2005 championships, for example, among the 460 participants, 234 (more than 50%) came from clubs representing Arab towns, and 75 (16%) came from clubs representing mixed towns and cities. Following the arrival of large numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union, which started in 1989, some of these more recent immigrants became boxing champions, but without really threatening Arab domination of the sport. Between the years 2001 and 2004, 40 out of 52 (77%) championship titles for male seniors were won by Arab boxers. This is remarkable considering that Arabs make up only 17% of Israeli citizens.
An intriguing aspect of this overrepresentation of Arabs in such a high-contact, combative sport is that it has rarely translated into explicit expressions of political protest or ethno-national confrontations. Samir Arafat, an international boxing referee and a former member of the boxing association board, provided a blatant expression of the tendency to avoid any Palestinian nationalist connotation. His last name is identical to that of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. In boxing competitions, however, Samir Arafat usually asks the announcer to use his first name only. His son Fares, a boxer who was in the Israeli cadet squad, also insisted in press interviews on distancing himself from any association with Yasser Arafat.
In a 2003 interview with the Hebrew daily Haaretz, Ghanem Mahrum, the coach of Golden Gloves Nazareth, the most successful Arab boxing club in Israel, joked that, “The only place where an Arab can hit a Jew and get a medal for that is Israel’s boxing championship”. To what extent does this joke reflect the quietist tendencies of most Arab-Israeli boxers?
The intimidation, humiliation, and routine indignities that Arabs endured under the Military Government in Israel are well documented, and there is also robust evidence for boxing’s popularity among Arab men in Israel at that time. Yet, we rarely find an articulated narrative that links these two phenomena. This is exactly what makes the story of Hamze Yunes, and his memoirs, published in 1999, so important.
Becoming a boxer
Hamze Yunes was born in 1944 in ‘Ara, a small Arab village annexed to Israel following the ceasefire agreement in 1949 between Israel and Jordan. As a five-year-old child, he witnessed the entrance of the Israeli forces into his village. From his adolescent years, he had strong memories of fear and humiliation. In his memoirs, he explained how these feelings propelled him to be a boxer:
“Suddenly the withdrawal [of the Arab forces] happened and the strangers went in without fighting, and started humiliating the people. They built near the mosque of ‘Ara a big arc and hung on it a foreign flag and ordered the village’s men to stand in line and to pass underneath the arc. Some youngsters and men were able to hide, escaping from the surrender passing. But those who escaped did not dare to boast, [and did so] only quietly and without full confidence.
The Border Police Troops, who are more evil than the army, conducted campaigns of search, looting, and destruction, after they gathered the men of the village and ordered them to sit on the ground. Because of what I saw and heard about the actions of the Border Police I felt, for the first time, fear. How do the men sit on the ground? And how do they allow strangers to invade their homes? I understood that the metal pipes [i.e. the guns], not those who carry them, are the reason for the surrender that made feel the fear. These feelings disturbed me very much, so I begun to think about learning how to defend myself."
Notably, the first foreshadowing of his boxing career is introduced by his description of the men of the village being forced to walk under Israeli flag in a literal rite de passage of surrender and to sit on the ground, unable to resist. For Hamze, boxing became an important sphere for rehabilitating an undermined image of masculinity; his participation in the sport was an act of self-strengthening and not just a means for self-defense.
In middle school, Hamze studied in Ha-ma’apil, a Jewish kibbutz; in his memoirs, Hamze insists on mentioning that the kibbutz was built on the ruins of the village of Kakun, emptied and destroyed in the 1948 war. His reference to this period in his life shows us that Hamze, like other young men of his generation, tried to find his place among his Jewish peers but felt rejected. He writes about some friends he found among the Jewish students, although he always felt that they were somewhat reserved and even racist in their treatment of the Arab students. But one incident received special attention in his memoirs.
At the age of 16, the Jewish students left for several days for para-military youth exercises (known as gadna). This is a regular occurrence aimed at preparing Jewish youth for their military service two years later. When his schoolmates came back and were sitting with the Arab students, they talked about practicing shooting a gun, and these stories caused tension between the Jewish and Arab students. Now, not only did Hamze face the helplessness of being subjected to military rule, he also had a frustrating point of reference and comparison – the Jewish male youth who had the opportunity to hold a gun and perform their masculinity as warriors. Hamze continues:
"Anyway, the kibbutz members were covering their discrimination with a cover of rationality, and did not treat us as it was common in the Jewish street. For example, if an Arab argued with a Jew, immediately the latter would shout: ‘an Arab, an Arab’. These words were like a call and a sign to other Jews that an unwanted person is among them and immediately some Jews gathered from everywhere to add kicking and beating. If they heard this call they would compete with one another in capturing the prey. Then, if an Arab’s blood spilled on them, they would say to the police that the Arab should be blamed because he soiled the Jew’s clothes!
This reality forced me to learn boxing to defend myself, and to avoid being an easy prey to fanatical aggressions. Quickly I was successful in boxing and after one year of continuous practicing I won the state’s championship for youth. After one more year I became the best boxer and in 1963, I won the state championship in the Light Middleweight category."
Here, Hamze gets closer to justifying his boxing career in the need for self defense. It is important to remember, however, that Arab-Jewish fist fights of this kind were not a daily phenomenon. At the end of the day, Jews had the state apparatus, including the armed forces on their side, and being a boxer would have been very little help to an Arab citizen in most incidents of daily interethnic conflict.
After finishing middle school Hamze went with his older brother to work in construction in Tel Aviv, where he had the opportunity to join a leading boxing club and be trained by one of the best coaches in the country. In 1963, he joined the Beitar Netanya club, following his beloved coach, Yazi Ya’acbowitz, who also joined this club.
While writing in the late 1990s, Hamze expresses full awareness for the potential propagandist value that his athletic success gave Israel: “I understand today very well that those who were coaching me, or at least some of them, did not see any problem with me being a brilliant champion as long as they related me to Israel and it helped Israel for public relations purposes.” Again, this argument is uncommon among Arab athletes and former athletes, who usually prefer to present their success as a desirable model of integration.
One evening in March 1964, Hamze and his cousin Makram were involved in a fistfight between Arab and Jewish youngsters in a gas station. A Jewish man was severely injured and the two cousins were anxious that someone had been quick enough to write down their motorcycle number. Afraid of the police, they decided to escape to the Gaza Strip, which then was under Egyptian rule.
From this point on the plot becomes highly complicated and partly obscured due to the involvement of the Egyptian and Israeli security services. The Egyptian authorities sent them back to inside Israel, where they were immediately arrested. On April 17, they escaped from jail and crossed the border back to the Gaza Strip, where they were arrested again by the Egyptian forces who were suspicious about their escape story. After being convinced that the two were not Israeli agents, they were recruited to Egyptian intelligence as translators. Hamze was able to renew his boxing career, and his victories against Egyptian boxers made him very popular among the Palestinians in Gaza. During the 1967 war, Hamze was severely injured in his leg but was able to flee to Egypt. Later he moved to Lebanon, where he joined the Fatah forces. After being caught in 1971 on a guerilla mission, he was imprisoned in the Ramleh jail, from which he escaped to Lebanon in March 1974. In the late 1990s, Hamze lived in Jordan, and today he lives in Sweden.
Hamze Yunes might be the only sporting star who chose to cross the border and join the PLO. Moreover, while some Palestinian poets and intellectuals inside Israel express firm nationalist stands, it is very rare to find these voices among athletes. Sport has the power to tie the athletes to the state with bonds of commitments, hopes, and aspirations which minimize the chance that a revolutionary national leader will ever come from their ranks.
Nevertheless, young Hamze’s world view was probably not unique among other Arab boxers of his generation. What retroactively shaped his boxing narrative in such a unique way are his decades as a fighting member of the PLO, and his social and physical location during those years. Unlike Arab athletes of his generation, he is not concerned with the reactions of Jews in Israel to his opinions, and he long ago gave up on his integrative aspirations. He never had a chance to be a ‘Palestinian Muhammad Ali’ since his metamorphosis is a direct result of him being outside of the Israeli public sphere. Had he avoided the hasty decision to escape to Gaza in 1964, it is likely that he would have continued in the supervised and co-opted Israeli boxing framework and would have adopted its prevalent discourse.
Tamir Sorek studies the social, political, and cultural dynamics that shape ethnic and national identities, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine. He is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at the University of Florida.
1. The Military Government of Israel was a form of martial law imposed on a majority of the Palestinian-Arabs living in Israel from 1948 to 1966. Rights and protections afforded to these Palestinian-Arabs by virtue of their status as Israeli citizens were suspended during this period.