Four hundred police officers and 200 private security guards were on hand at Teddy Stadium in the capital as Beitar Jerusalem played a high-tension match against Arab squad Bnei Sakhnin Sunday night.
The game was completed without major violence, though about 70 fans were kicked out of the ground in the course of the evening. Half of those excluded were Beitar fans punished for racist and inciteful chants against the team and its management; the other half were Sakhnin fans, for alleged public disturbances.
The much-watched game saw the first appearance of a newly signed Muslim player for the club, one of two Chechens who joined the team at the end of January to the outrage of a racist contingent of the team’s supporters. The signings have led to racist protests in recent weeks and an arson attack at the team’s premises on Friday.
Beitar fans have a strong nationalist orientation, and violent confrontations have broken out at Beitar-Sakhnin games in the past.
Gabriel Kadiev entered the game in the 80th minute to a mixture of cheers and jeers, but the game was played with few incidents. Still Kadiev was booed by fans every time he touched the ball.
The game ended with a 2-2 draw.
Extremist fans of Beitar, specifically a cell of fans known as La Familia, have been explicit in their deep opposition to the signing of the Chechens, Zaur Sadayev and Kadiev. Two weeks ago, fans were arrested for holding up a banner reading “Beitar forever pure” and chanting racist slogans.
Sadayev, a striker, was scratched before the game as an injury.
Beitar owner Arkady Gaydamak arrived at the stadium prior to the game and was greeted with loud jeers and offensive chants by some of the club’s hard-core fans. Itzik Kornfein, Beitar’s chairman, was cursed out by some in the crowd as well.
A minor incident took place in the Sakhnin wing of the stadium, as the team fans booed players singing the national anthem.
A police spokesman said six Beitar fans wearing La Familia shirts had been turned away at the gates, and nine Sakhnin fans were removed early on for yelling provocatively.
Police commissioner Yohanan Danino had said before the game that his squad, which included undercover officers, would expend all efforts to make sure that no violence or racism spilled onto the pitch.
“Our goal is to ensure that, at the end of the game, everyone returns home peacefully,” he told reporters outside the stadium. “The phenomena that have happened here, including violence and racial incitement on the soccer field, and arson off the field… we have no intention of letting them continue.”
Also reportedly attending the match, presumably to root for his countrymen now on Beitar, was 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.
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 are 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.”
The Jerusalem district police said Thursday that a large-scale operation was planned to penetrate and crack down on the 30-50 extremist supporters members of 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 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.