As Israeli football season opens, violent racist attacks on Palestinians return too

With the opening of the Israeli football season this week, violent and racist attacks by fans have returned.

In this video, released by Israeli police, supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem football club violently attacked Palestinian workers at a McDonald’s restaurant. According to Ynet:

At the remand hearing, police representative Officer Shlomi Ben Dor said that “on their way to the (Beitar Jerusalem) practice field, a group of fans stopped at the McDonald’s. One of the employees, of Arab origin, stepped outside to clean the tables, as several of the fans started talking to him. Once they realized he was an Arab they started yelling ‘death to Arabs,’ ‘Muhammad the homo,’ and other slurs the mind cannot tolerate.”

Ben Dor added “they started attacking the Arab and later on, when he managed to escape into the restaurant, the suspects, accompanied by others who have not yet been arrested, started… throwing chairs into the restaurant. Undercover officers at the scene arrested the suspects.”

Ongoing rage over Muslim players

The day before, after a rally to mark the football season’s opening, some fans expressed their lingering rage over the hiring of two Muslim players by the club:

Around 3,000 fans attended what is usually a celebratory occasion and the vast majority cheered the depleted squad.

However, after the players returned to the dressing room, a group of fans swore, spat and threw rocks at goalkeeper Ariel Harush and midfielder Dario Fernandez, attacking them for their support of Chechen Muslims Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev last season.

Harush and Fernandez required a police escort to leave the complex, with the Argentinian seriously considering leaving the club due to the incident.

Long-standing problem of violence and racist incitement

Sadly such incidents are not exceptional. Last year, for example, a mob of Beitar fans was caught on video rampaging through a Jerusalem area shopping mall attacking Arab workers and shouting racist slurs.

Notwithstanding the arrests of suspects in the latest McDonald’s incident, Israeli police and football authorities have done little to clamp down on violence and racist incitement by fans, from whom the chant “Death to the Arabs” is frequently heard.

Even ESPN aired a 15-minute documentary – which can be watched online – about Beitar fans’ notorious racism.

The racism should also be seen in the broader context of widespread racism in Israeli society against Africans and Palestinians.

Moving forwards or backwards?

In recent months – with the hiring of the Chechen players, Beitar’s outgoing owner and chairman made some effort to control the racist outbursts of fans who insist Beitar must remain a purely Jewish club.

But now the problem, at least at Beitar, may get even worse, with a recent change of ownership which saw Russian tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak hand the club over to Eli Tabib.

Tabib, the former owner of the Hapoel Tel Aviv football club, currently faces charges of violently assaulting and kicking a minor outside his home and then destroying security camera footage of the alleged incident.

Writing in Haaretz, Moshe Boker observes:

The worst thing to happen to Beitar with the departure of Gaydamak and [chair Yitzhak] Kornfein is the absence of anyone who will fight the extremist and racist fans. After a long period during which Kornfein ostracized and pursued them, and many of them were arrested, the fans feel responsible for Tabib’s arrival. Everything Beitar tried to rebuild over the last six months has been destroyed.

The problem is more widespread than just Beitar, as Haaretz observed last year, “The anarchy and lack of police enforcement have turned Israeli soccer into a source of violence, racism and hatred, and has even started to attract dubious characters, who at times manage the teams.”

The New Israel Fund (NIF), a liberal Zionist charity, which monitors and campaigns against racism in football stadiums, said in a recent report that there had been “progress,” in some areas of fighting football racism but said that Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv fans are still responsible for most incidents.

There were 38 episodes of incitement against minorities this year, including 18 at Maccabi Tel Aviv and 15 at Beitar Jerusalem, according to the report. Last year’s figure was 35 and two years ago NIF reported forty nine. It also noted an increase in fans condemning violence and racist incitement.

“Israeli Rosa Parks”

Amid increased international attention, Maccabi Tel Aviv has launched an anti-racism campaign. In this video, club players appeal to fans to refrain from making ape noises when African players are on the field, and from calling Arab players “terrorists,” among other habitual slurs.

In May, Haaretz writer Tamir Cohen appealed to the club’s star player, Maharan Radi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, to become the “Israeli Rosa Parks” by quitting the club:

Maharan Radi should be a symbol. He needs to be the one who says, “Enough.” He needs to leave the pitch and refuse to sweat for fans who make up racist chants about his people.

Despite the persistent problems, Israeli soccer has faced no international sanctions, and Israel was notoriously awarded the hosting of this year’s UEFA Under 21’s tournament in face of considerable international protests and objections.

It promises to be a long, hot season, especially for any Palestinian workers who happen to be in the path of rampaging mobs of racist fans.

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When I watched this video, I was reminded of the actions and behaviors of many of the white working-class Bostonians who resided in Boston's Charlestown and Southie (South Boston) sections, when the disastrous mandatory school busing edict took Boston by storm in the mid to late 1970's. The riots on the part of the Beihar fans at Teddy's stadium in Jerusalem were, in many respects, quite similar to Boston's busing riots.

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"In this video, club players appeal to fans to refrain from making ape noises when African players are on the field"

Stay classy Israel!

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.