ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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With death threats and fireworks, Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans protest Europe ban

After being booted from European competition over pitch invasion at State Cup final, angry fans rally near home of IFA prosecutor, vandalize Pride flags; ministers slam punishment

Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans protest near the home of Israel Football Association prosecutor Nir Reshef in Givatayim on June 5, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans protest near the home of Israel Football Association prosecutor Nir Reshef in Givatayim on June 5, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Hundreds of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer staged a loud rally Monday evening outside the home of the Israel Football Association (IFA) prosecutor in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, blasting fireworks into the air and engaging in minor vandalism in protest of a decision to ban the team from a European tournament next year.

Right-wing politicians criticized the decision and some fans even allegedly sent death threats to the IFA judges who decided on the punishment after Beitar fans stormed the field following a State Cup final win last month.

The decision Monday evening by a tribunal convened by Israeli soccer’s governing body means the club will be barred from the UEFA Europa Conference League, a contest of national league high-flyers and cup winners from across Europe.

Beitar Jerusalem was also ordered to pay a NIS 70,000 ($18,720) fine. The club could also be banned from the State Cup and three points could be deducted in league play if the fan chaos recurs.

Hours after the decision was handed out, fans streamed out to IFA prosecutor Nir Reshef’s home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, where they gathered with horns, whistles, firecrackers, and fireworks that they set off in the air above his home.

Videos from the scene posted on social media showed the fans chanting slogans such as “Nir Reshef is dead” and “You have a corrupt neighbor.”

Additional footage showed fans vandalizing Pride flags on the streets of Givatayim. Hebrew media said plant pots at the entrance to Reshef’s building were shattered.

Some of the rioters briefly blocked the nearby Aluf Sade road and lit a bonfire there.

In response, the IFA issued a statement saying that the tribunal judges who had decided on the punishment received death threats, with some of their phone numbers being circulated. The association said it had filed a police complaint.

In its statement, the IFA cautioned that “violent and dangerous discourse has developed that puts us very close to disaster.”

“The tribunals are independent and act fearlessly and without discrimination,” the statement continued. “Their independence will never be in doubt. The correct and accepted path is to file an appeal to the [IFA’s] top court, as the club has said it will do. The Israel Police has been updated by the IFA on the latest developments. We are confident that it will act determinedly against those who cross lines that should never be crossed.”

The ruling also drew political reactions from members of the right-wing government, many of whom are associated with Beitar or supportive of it.

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar at his office in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, tweeted that the punishment “doesn’t represent sportsmanlike values” and that Beitar “deserves to play in Europe” since it won the Cup and since “fans’ behavior should never affect the players and the coach, who won the match.”

Zohar said “collective punishment isn’t the solution” and added that the ruling “must change, or else there is no meaning for victory on the field.”

Likud’s Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem, a Beitar fan, reacted during a speech at the Knesset plenum, suggesting that the ruling may have been political.

Addressing IFA, Amsalem said: “Think about what you do, give a sports-related punishment, no problem, [but] definitely don’t boot us from soccer enterprises. I hope you didn’t do it because I came to the cabinet [meeting] with a Beitar flag.”

Beitar Jerusalem fans storm the field at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, May 23, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Following Beitar’s 3-0 win against Netanya at Haifa’s Sammy Ofer stadium, supporters of the Jerusalem team known for its hardcore fan base rushed the pitch in celebration. People set fires and broke up a ceremony as President Isaac Herzog attempted to award medals to the winning team, reportedly making off with some of the hardware. Herzog was hustled off the field under heavy security, and held a makeup ceremony for the team at his Jerusalem residence the next day.

Officials considered stripping the team of its title, drawing a lawsuit threat from the team. In the end, the panel left the cup with Beitar, but said it “couldn’t find any good reasons to allow it to also enjoy the fruits and economic rights that come with it.”

“The State Cup final game is supposed to be a game of honorable status, and serve as a celebration of the end of the season in the presence of two crowds of fans who filled the stands, in front of many dignitaries,” the tribunal said in its verdict on Monday. “In practice, this day became a shameful and humiliating event, the likes of which Israeli soccer has never known in a situation like this.”

As a result, Maccabi Netanya, which lost the cup final match that sent Beitar fans streaming onto the field on May 23, may be sent to Europe instead.

Israeli teams play in Europe due to difficulties with scheduling matches against teams from countries in the Mideast and Asia that are opposed to normalizing relations with the Jewish state.

The final of the Israeli state cup between Maccabi Netanya and Beitar Jerusalem at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, May 23, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Beitar, founded in 1936, is arguably the most popular soccer club in Israel and undoubtedly its most controversial, thanks to the racism and violence of portions of its fan base.

Beitar Jerusalem is the only club in Israel’s Premier League to have never signed an Arab player, and its most vocal and extremist fan club — known as La Familia — can often be heard chanting “Death to Arabs” from the eastern stand of Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Two Muslim Chechen players it signed a decade ago were hounded out of the club.

Last year, then-defense minister Benny Gantz suggested La Familia be labeled a terrorist group after it was involved in violence during the Jerusalem Day Flag March.

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