Qatar has become the first Arab country to donate money to a town inside Israel, giving US$6 million (Ђ5 million) to a mixed Arab-Jewish city in northern Israel to build a soccer stadium, officials said Tuesday.
The step was Qatar's latest in its bid to try revive ties between Gulf states and Israel following the Jewish state's withdrawal last month from the Gaza Strip.
Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani authorized the funding after Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi met senior Qatari officials and members of this energy-rich Gulf state's Olympic committee.
Gulf states have previously donated generously to Palestinian cities and towns, but neglected Arab towns within Israel.
Qatar's donation will be used to build the 13,000-capacity Doha Stadium in the northern town of Sakhnin for the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team. The total cost of the Sakhnin project is between US$12-$13 million (Ђ9.9-10.8 million) of which Israel has given US$3.3 million (Ђ2.7 million).
Qatar, which hosts U.S. military facilities that controlled the early stages of the war in Iraq, has also agreed to accept some Israeli Arab students on scholarship at Qatari universities. It has also been asked to support the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team, Tibi said.
"This is the largest financial support that Sakhnin has ever received ... from any outside source," Tibi told The Associated Press from Qatar's capital, Doha.
"We very much appreciate ... the readiness to listen and positively react to our demands, especially since Sakhnin suffers from unequal treatment and policy, and we are trying to bridge the gap with assistance from the Arab world," he added.
Qatari officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media, confirmed that Tibi had secured the donation pledge, but refused to disclose the amount.
Tibi said talks on providing funds for building the stadium began five months ago, during which he met several Qatari officials and showed them maps and documents related to the plans. Engineers from the Qatari Olympic Committee later visited Sakhnin.
The donation came through, Tibi said, "because we are Palestinians originally and because Sakhnin is very important."
"This part (Israeli Arab) of the Palestinian people has been neglected for more than 50 years by the Arab world," Tibi added.
Sakhnin, a community of 25,000 in northern Israel, rejoiced last year when their mixed Jewish-Arab team with the lowest budget in Israel's 12-team top league won Israel's State Cup and earned a place in UEFA Cup, the AP says.
Israeli-Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population of 6.8 million. Despite having Israeli citizenship, they have long suffered from economic and political discrimination. Aside from Haifa and three smaller cities, they live in separate towns and neighborhoods from Jews.