The head of the Chechen Republic is reportedly coming to Israel to attend Beitar Jerusalem’s soccer game Sunday.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s trip was scheduled to assuage tensions in light of the ongoing conflict between the soccer club and parts of its fan base over the signing of two Muslim Chechen players, according to Israel Radio. His mission was also billed as an effort to increase tolerance between Jews and Muslims.
The signing last month of Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev — the first Muslims to play for Beitar, a club with a strong nationalist orientation — came under racist attack by some of its fan base, who oppose having Muslims or Arabs play for the team.
Beitar faces another test on Sunday, when it hosts the Arab Israeli team Bnei Sakhnin. Kadiev is expected to play in that game.
Tensions over the signing of the players were exacerbated Friday morning when unknown perpetrators started a fire at the team’s administrative offices in the capital.
According to firefighters, the blaze was likely started by a Molotov cocktail thrown into the office of club steward, Meir Harush, next to the team’s training grounds. There were no injuries reported, but serious damage was caused to the building.
Beitar Jerusalem said the incident crossed “a red line when it comes to the violence and racism that we’re dealing with.”
Police set up a special investigative team to tackle the crime.
“Those who committed this despicable act,” read Beitar’s statement, “caused indescribable damage to items representing Beitar’s history, like trophies, plates and memorabilia.”
A spokesman for the Jerusalem fire department said that the fire was limited to Harush’s office, but that the surrounding offices and facilities suffered extensive damage caused by smoke and soot.
Harush — who has spent the past 20 years building a historical stash of club accolades and player uniforms — said, “They burned the symbol of Beitar, the history of the club. People without a heart. It’s infuriating and shocking,” reported Channel 1.
According to Beitar officials, security cameras surrounding the facility will likely help to catch the perpetrators.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the alleged arson, stating, “Such behavior is shameful. We cannot countenance such racism.” He added, “The Jewish people, who suffered from boycotts and ostracism, must be a light unto the nations.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat reacted to news of the blaze saying, “Those who did this are not fans. They are criminals in every respect. This is an act reminiscent of the workings of a crime organization, and the authorities should respond accordingly.”
On Thursday, the Jerusalem District Attorney charged four Beitar Jerusalem fans with racial incitement for their reaction to the players, who have been in Israel for less than two weeks.
News of the indictments came as police said they would work to crack down on racism in the club’s fan base, which has become notorious for displays of hostility towards opposing teams’ players during games.
Three 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.
Another indictment was filed against a 23-year-old Jerusalem resident who was accused of trying to break into the team’s training ground with the intent of sabotaging the introduction of Sadayev and Kadiev.
The Jerusalem district police said Thursday it was planning a large-scale operation 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.
Also Thursday, the Sports Betting Council said it would transfer NIS 200,000 to Beitar to help it in its efforts to root out racism from its games.
Kadyrov, a former Chechen guerrilla and the son of an assassinated former president, has been the leader of the Russian republic since 2007. The oil-rich republic has historically been a rebellious thorn in Russia’s side, culminating most recently in the bitter Second Chechen War which started in 1999 and continued throughout the next decade, during which the republic’s capital, Grozny, was pulverized and an estimated 60,000 were killed, often via brutal tactics.
Ruble-rich postwar Chechnya has become relatively stable, but Western groups say human rights abuses are rampant.
Philip Podolsky contributed to this report.