Four hundred police officers and 200 private security guards, including undercover detectives, will be on hand at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, Sunday evening, ahead of Beitar Jerusalem’s soccer game against Arab-Israeli rivals Bnei Sakhnin.
The match comes amid high tensions over Beitar’s signing of two Muslim Chechen players, who joined the team at the end of January. Beitar, whose fans have a strong nationalist orientation, had never previously signed an Arab or Muslim player, and violent confrontations have broken out at Beitar-Sakhnin games in the past.
Extremist fans of Beitar have been explicit in their deep opposition to the signing of the Chechens, Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev. Two weeks ago, fans raised criticism for holding up a banner reading “Beitar forever pure” and chanting racist slogans.
On Friday morning, unknown perpetrators started a fire at the team’s administrative offices, causing serious damage to a collection of team memorabilia, and on Thursday, the Jerusalem District Attorney charged three fans with racial incitement, after the supporters, aged 22 to 24, were accused of shouting chants including “Death to Arabs” and “May your village burn” during a recent Beitar match against Bnei Yehuda in the capital. Both incidents were condemned by the team management and by politicians across the political spectrum.
“The police is taking this very seriously,” Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat said Sunday on Army Radio. “People who would burn an office are not fans, they are dangerous criminals, whose actions resemble those of crime organizations. We need to take this criminal activity, even terrorism, against the team seriously…. We need to remove them from Jerusalemite and Israeli society.”
Barkat added that “99 percent” of Beitar fans disapprove of the racist incidents and only want to “strengthen the team.” He said that in the past it has been difficult to find investors for “a great team” with a reputation for having racist fans, but the current crisis represents a “serious opportunity for a change that will draw in investors.”
“I hope the teams focus on the game and not the racism,” he said, adding that he intended to attend Sunday’s game.
“The last thing we want, and which we absolutely reject, is violence, racism and boycotts. These are unacceptable to us. I say this in regards to a team that I have supported for years, Beitar Jerusalem,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Sunday statement. “Beitar has good and dear fans. Lately, we have seen displays of extremism that we find unacceptable. These must be uprooted… from the world of sports. We need dialogue and partnership. We do not need extremism and violence, and neither do we need boycotts, in any sphere.”
Also scheduled to attend the match, presumably to root for his countrymen now on Beitar, is the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, whose trip was scheduled to assuage tensions between the soccer club and parts of its fan base, according to Israel Radio. His mission was also billed as an effort to increase tolerance between Jews and Muslims.
The Jerusalem district police said Thursday a large-scale operation was planned to penetrate and crack down on a tightly knit group of 30-50 extremist supporters within the Beitar fan base known as La Familia. Police said they intend to use surveillance and phone tapping in order to gain intelligence on the group and curb its activities.
A longstanding La Familia member, Ronnie Resnick, denied that there was any connection between the arson and his group. “They should investigate and find the culprit,” he told Channel 10 on Sunday. “There is no need to burn anything, it should never reach such a level. At the most, insults and swearing are acceptable at soccer games.”
“They should throw out the two Chechens, along with Arkady, and the behavior will change,” he added, referring to Beitar owner Arkady Gaydamak, who pushed through the signings and who has said that a small group of “so-called supporters” of Beitar will not be allowed to continue to stain the club’s image.