Jerusalem police arrested seven members of Beitar Jerusalem’s hardcore fanclub La Familia on Tuesday for suspected involvement in the Friday torching of the club’s administrative offices.
The police investigation into the suspected arson utilized phone tapping and other electronic surveillance measures in an effort to infiltrate the communications network of the extremist fanclub’s leadership.
Additional arrests are expected in the coming days.
The organization itself announced Tuesday evening that it would be halting its operations in response to the recent controversy surrounding the club and its fans.
One of the group’s leaders said that its members would no longer attend games.
“We will leave the bleachers to the ‘sane audience’ and everybody will see how crypt-like the stadium will be without us. This is about more than just La Familia. The entire eastern section of the stadium feels unwelcome at Teddy [stadium],” he said. “We will all sit and watch the matches together outside the stadium and will only return after Arkady [Gaydamak, the team’s co-owner] and all the other interested parties conclude their business with the club.”
Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat welcomed the news, saying it was good for Israeli sports in general and the club in particular. “I am glad that that the team heads and its tens of thousands of fans have come to realize the despicable fanclub has done the team more harm than good with its racist and violent displays.”
Extremist nationalist fans of Beitar have been explicit in their deep opposition to the signing of two Chechens players who are Muslim, and have directed much of their anger at Gaydamak.
Two weeks ago, fans were arrested for holding up a banner reading “Beitar forever pure” and chanting racist slogans during a game and, on Sunday, about 35 supporters were kicked out of the stadium for uttering racist and inciteful chants during a high-tension match against Arab squad Bnei Sakhnin.
A police spokesman said six Beitar fans wearing La Familia shirts had been turned away at the gates.
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.”
“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.”
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.