Amnesty International on Sunday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize publicly for sharing a false report on Facebook alleging that supporters of the Sakhnin soccer club disrupted a minute of silence in memory of 10 teens killed in a flash flood.
The post was quietly removed from the premier’s Facebook page on Thursday, but he made no comment about it.
Netanyahu has not apologized or otherwise responded to criticism over the false claim that fans of the club, the most prominent and successful of the teams based in Israel’s Arab communities, booed and celebrated the deaths.
“These baseless statements of yours are not unusual,” the human rights organization wrote to the prime minister, “and there is growing concern that sweeping statements against Arab citizens of the State of Israel gives legitimacy for public figures and ordinary citizens to join expressions of slander and incitement against citizens, in a state that aspires to be democratic and law abiding.”
Gil Naveh, a spokesperson for Amnesty International Israel, demanded that Netanyahu apologize for his post.
“We call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to show leadership, apologize publicly for spreading false information, and for a public outcry against the media channel that provided the false information,” he said.
Netanyahu’s claims were based on a report in the right-wing online news outlet Israel National News, whose story about the alleged disruption was still online on Thursday.
“It is inconceivable that a week ago, the prime minister once again issued a serious allegation that blames and defames an entire community without checking the facts,” said Naveh. “Not only does Netanyahu continue to behave irresponsibly, but he continues to behave like a thief in the night by obliterating the inciting post after four days, quietly, without any apology, expression of regret or taking responsibility.”
The story appeared to be based on a letter by activist Itamar Ben-Gvir, an attorney for extremist Jewish activists and a former member of the radical Kach organization, who made the assertion in a complaint to the Israel Football Association after the Saturday game.
The team itself slammed Netanyahu last Sunday for the post, with a spokesperson saying the prime minister was trampling on the bereaved families’ feelings and trying to divide Israeli society.
League officials and members of the opposing team, Hapoel Ra’anana, all maintained that there was no disruption by fans of the Bnei Shakhnin club during the memorial at Sakhnin’s home stadium.
The 10 teenagers for whom the moment of silence was observed, high school students on a hike organized by a pre-military academy they were set to attend next year, were swept away and killed in a flash flood in later April in a desert canyon.
In his post, which included a link to the Israel National News story, Netanyahu called the purported disruption, “an utter disgrace,” adding, “I expect all public leaders, Jews and non-Jews, to forcefully condemn this embarrassing behavior.”
But a Hapoel Ra’anana player told Channel 10 that the minute of silence was observed by most, except for a few children in the top of the stands who apparently did not understand what was going on.
The league later said that it too did not find any misbehavior during the short memorial event.
“Following a careful check that we carried out, which included video from the game, the report by the referee, and conversations with those who were on the field, we found no indication of booing and even less so of ‘wild unrestrained behavior’ or demonstrations of joy during the minute of silence in memory of those who died in the flash flood,” a spokesperson for the league said.
“It is very worrying that the prime minister rushed to respond to lies and to respond to those who are seeking to spread abuse and lies,” the Bnei Sakhnin spokesperson said. “It is worrying that the noble prime minister decided to trample on the pain of the families [of the flood victims] for the purpose of dividing Israeli society.”
“It would have been appropriate for the honorable prime minister to stand up for the truth before his hasty response to those who are undermining Israel, that is to say those who spread the false news,” the team statement added.
Ra’anana won the Saturday game against Sakhnin, 3-1.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.