Soccer fan attack on Palestinians sparks Israeli debate

By James M. Dorsey

An initially under-reported attack by militant supporters of controversial Beitar Jerusalem Football Club known for their anti-Palestinian, anti-Ashkenazi Jewish attitudes on Palestinian shoppers and workers in a Jerusalem shopping mall and the Israeli police’s failure to intervene and arrest any the attackers has outraged many Israelis and is raising questions about the moral fiber of a society that tolerates such incidents as well as a soccer club that is unashamedly racist.

Police launched an investigation into the incident that was caught on security camera video only after the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the assault and asked how Israel would have reacted if France had responded similarly to last week’s attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which four people, including three children, were killed. The alleged killer died in a shootout with police after an intense manhunt and a more than 30-hour siege.

“Those who fail to raise their voice now over Malha will get Toulouse in Jerusalem. Sticks today, guns tomorrow,” warned Haaretz commentator Gideon Levy.

“It's not hard to imagine what would have happened had hundreds of people burst into a mall in Toulouse and beat up Jews who worked there. Israel and the Jewish community would have set up a hue and cry. The president of the republic would have rushed to Toulouse, met with representatives of the Jewish community and expressed his shock and regret. Our prime minister and foreign minister would have competed with each other in expressing shock, and columnists would be fulminating about anti-Semitism raising its ugly head in Europe. Everyone would agree: Jews were beat up (again) simply for being Jewish.

It's also not hard to imagine what would have happened had hundreds of Arabs stormed the Jerusalem mall, beating up Jewish workers. Dozens of rioters would have been arrested and tried. But when it comes to Beitar fans, all is forgiven, all is overlooked. No one was arrested, almost no one said anything, and even after it was made public the mall's manager was the only one to apologize to the workers, who were beaten up simply for being Arab,” Mr. Levy said.

Journalist Uzi Dann noted in a separate commentary that when Paris Saint-Germain fans attacked Jews in 2006 after their team lost to Hapoel Tel Aviv French police intervened immediately and shot one of the attackers.

“In properly run countries like England and Germany there is surveillance of hooligans, who are quite often extreme right-wingers, and harsh penalties are meted out for violence, including imprisonment. And of course, there is massive police presence during games,” Mr. Dann wrote.

He said the mounting Beitar violence stemmed from the growing influence among the clubs fans of a group known as La Familia that is dominated by supporters of Kach, the outlawed violent and racist party that was headed by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. Beitar’s management has so far failed to stymie the group’s influence.

Messrs Levy and Dann’s comments followed Haaretz’s breaking of the story that some 300 Beitar Jerusalem fans had attacked Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Malha shopping mall as part of a celebration of their team’s defeat of rival Bnei Yehuda.

The attack, one of the worst Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Jerusalem in recent years, came two years after the Israel Football Association replaced police in Israeli stadium with ushers in a bid to reduce potential provocations of soccer violence. The shifting of responsibility for law and order away from the stadiums did not relieve the police of its responsibilities in other public places, Haaretz noted.

The incident occurred in what City University of New York scholar Dov Waxman described in an article in The Middle East Journal as an atmosphere of escalating tension between Jews and Palestinians in Israel. “Attitudes on both sides have hardened, mutual distrust has intensified, fear has increased, and political opinion has become more militant and uncompromising….Jews and Palestinians are currently on a collision course, with potentially severe consequences for their continued peaceful co-existence, as well as for stability and democracy in Israel,” Mr. Waxman wrote.

The incident further highlights the failure of the Israeli Football Association (IFA), the only soccer body in the Middle East and North Africa to have launched a campaign against racism and discrimination, to rein in the Beitar fans and curb the club’s submission to its supporter’s racist attitudes. With  the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s Premier League, Beitar has faced since 2005 more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including point deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fans’ racist behavior.

Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It’s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin, revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.

Supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities.

Beitar is Israel’s only leading club never to have signed an Israeli Palestinian player because of fan pressure despite the fact that Palestinians are among the country’s top players. Maccabi striker Mohammed Ghadir recently put Beitar on the spot when he challenged the club to hire him despite its discriminatory hiring policies.

Beitar fans shocked Israelis several years ago when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Referring to the latest incident, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the law enforcement agency had not launched an earlier investigation into the shopping mall attack because no one involved in the incident had sought medical assistance or filed a complaint about the incident in which mostly young Beitar fans unfurled a Kach flag.  Beitar fans often fly the flag during soccer matches.

"How can we arrest someone when there have been no complaints made? There have been no reports of injuries or that anyone was spoken to in [a racist] way. Normally, members of the public would have come forward within hours to make an official complaint. Until now, none has been made", Mr. Rosenfeld said.

Witnesses said the soccer fans flooded into the shopping center, hurled racial abuse at Palestinians workers and shoppers and chanted anti-Palestinian slogans.
Haaretz quoted Mohammed Yusuf, a cleaner in the mall, as describing the attack as “a mass lynching attempt."

An unidentified shop owner told the paper that the soccer fans “stood on chairs and tables (in the mall’s food court) and what have you. They made a terrible noise, screamed 'death to the Arabs,' waved their scarves and sang songs at the top of their voices."

A brawl erupted fans started verbally abusing and spitting at three Palestinian women, who were sitting in the food hall with their children, according to CCTV footage. Palestinian cleaners intervened in a bid to help the women, chasing fans with their broomsticks. After initially succeeding in chasing them away, the fans return to attack the cleaners.

"They caught some of them and beat the hell out of them. They hurled people into shops, and smashed them against shop windows. I don't understand how none shattered into pieces. One cleaner was attacked by some 20 people, poor guy, and then they had a go at his brother who works in a nearby pizza shop and came to his rescue," bakery owner Yair told Haaretz.

Jewish shop owners refused demands by the fans that they give them knives and sticks with which they could attack the Palestinians. By the same token, no one in the mall intervened to stop the attack. The mall’s security chief, whose men were outnumbered by the fans, called police who arrived only 40 minutes after the attack started. Police evacuated the mall but did not intervene further or arrest any of the culprits. Malha executive director Gideon Avrahami was the only senior official or executive to apologize to the workers.

In a statement, Beitar Jerusalem said that the club "firmly condemns violence and leaves it to the treatment of the authorities." Beitar went however on to say that “the incident at the mall has nothing to do with Beitar Jerusalem... Apparently the fistfight started because of an argument between a fan and a worker. This is not about racist violence."

Commentator Levy warned that the problem was one of Beitar’s attitude and mentality. 
“This was not a rare, one-off event, of course. The Beitar entourage strikes again. It starts with their racist and ultranationalist chants and songs, continues to hitting and will end in murders. One of the young rioters boasted the following day (to my informant's daughter) about what he and his friends had done the previous evening. Apparently anti-Arab violence is a source of cheer: Beitar finally won a game, you have to celebrate somehow. It's easy to imagine what would have happened had they lost,” he said.

An Israeli member of parliament called on the eve of the latest Beitar incident Israeli soccer fan for putting violent soccer fans under administrative detention, the legal holdover from British rule largely employed to detain Palestinians for reasons of security for indefinite periods of time without being charged.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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