JERUSALEM (AP) - An apparent arson attack Friday on the offices of leading Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem has put a spotlight on longstanding concerns over growing anti-Arab racism among the nation’s soccer fans.
The fire, which destroyed historic trophies and mementos, comes after the team broke with its unofficial tradition and signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, enraging its most xenophobic fan-base that has a history of chanting anti-Islam slurs at games.
The incident drew immediate rebukes and promises of a crackdown by authorities ahead of a charged home game against an Arab team that will likely be the debut match for one of the new Muslim players.
Beitar has long tried to contain a tightly knit fan group called “La Familia” whose behavior has had the team docked points and forced it to play before empty stadiums. The group is routinely abusive toward opposing players, taunting them with racist and anti-Arab chants.
Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, now star on the Israeli national team and on every first division team besides Beitar. Some of the league’s top goal scorers are Arabs and one team, Bnei Sakhnin, is entirely Arab.
But only after the signing of the Chechnyans did a full-fledged confrontation erupt between the Beitar fans and team management. At the first game after the move, fans unfurled large banners with racist undertones, such as one that read “Beitar pure forever.”
When the team refused to back down, the fans turned abusive and began cursing and spitting at players and management. Fearing for the safety of its newest arrivals from Chechnya, Beitar was forced to assign bodyguards to Zaur Sadayev, a 23-year-old forward, and Gabriel Kadiev, a 19-year-old defender, who were both brought over from FC Terek Grozny.
Players who stood up for their teammates were booed and threatened.
“I played in Holland and if I was greeted the way they have been greeted here I can’t imagine the outrage there would have been in Israel,” said defender Haim Megrelashvili.
With limited tools at his disposal, Head Coach Eli Cohen called on the state to intervene. “This is not just a problem of Beitar Jerusalem anymore,” he said.
A day after four of the club’s fans were charged with anti-Muslim chanting and police announced they would begin deploying undercover units at upcoming Beitar games, the team’s training facility was firebombed in an early morning attack.
Following Friday’s attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a Beitar fan, issued a strongly worded condemnation denouncing those opposing integration at Beitar.
“Such behavior is shameful. We cannot accept such racist behavior. The Jewish people, who suffered from boycotts and ostracism, must be a light unto the nations,” he said in a statement.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the attack left extensive damage to the team’s administrative offices. Walls were charred, as were team trophies, soccer cleats, retired uniforms, championship photos and more. No arrests have been made yet, but Rosenfeld said police suspected the attack was linked to the signing of the new players and pledged police would use “every legal means in order to prevent the continual racism, which is basically destroying the club.”
Last week, hundreds of police patrolled a game between Beitar and a second division team from the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. No major incidents were reported, and 12 fans from both sides were banned from the game. Police are planning heavy deployment next week when Beitar hosts Bnei Sakhnin.