How Israeli soccer hooligans fanned flames of hate

Fans of Beitar Jerusalem shout slogans during a match against Bnei Sakhnin as part of the Israeli Premier League, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem February 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Fans of Beitar Jerusalem shout slogans during a match against Bnei Sakhnin as part of the Israeli Premier League at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem in February 2013. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Earlier this week, Israeli authorities arrested six men in connection with the ghastly killing of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khieder, who, according to reports, was forced into a car and then beaten and burned to death. The killing has been cast as a reprisal attack for last month's abduction and slaying of three Israeli teens studying at seminaries in the West Bank. Their deaths form the backdrop to the ongoing exchange of rocket fire and missile strikes in the Gaza Strip that has led to about 80 Palestinians being killed.

A gag-order on Israeli media has led to rumor and innuendo surrounding the case. Initial reports suggested that some of the suspects in Abu Khieder's killing were connected to La Familia, a notorious wing of soccer fans connected to Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel's more prominent soccer clubs. La Familia is known for its noxious brand of far-right, Islamophobic politics. While La Familia represents a minority of Beitar's fan base, it has come to define the club to outside observers as a bastion of xenophobia and racism in Israel.

Unlike many other Israeli soccer clubs, Beitar has never had an Arab player on its books. Last year, when the team signed two Chechen Muslim players, fans, led by La Familia, revolted. They displayed a massive yellow banner that declared "Beitar Will Be Pure Forever" — a chillingly fascistic message — and a small group went on to torch the club's office, destroying treasured memorabilia. At the time, as Buzzfeed notes, Beitar's assistant coach said, "They’re burning buildings now... [they might] burn people next.”

The club and the majority of the team's fan base stuck by the two Chechens. But when one of them, the striker Zaur Sadayev, scored his first goal at home, hundreds in the stadium walked out in protest of their own team (see video below). Both Chechen players have returned to Russia to ply their trade.

Americans often are surprised when sports and politics get so deeply intertwined, but for much of the rest of the world — and especially when it comes to soccer — that overlap is a daily reality. Beitar Jerusalem was founded in 1936 by members of a Zionist youth movement; it is linked to the right-wing Likud party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and its fans consider Israel's Hapoel clubs, which are historically connected to the Labor Party, to be key rivals.

In the past, a section of Beitar fans jeered attempts to commemorate the 1995 assassination of Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians. Fans in La Familia routinely chant anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slogans and are known to tout symbols associated with the banned ultranationalist Kach political party. In March 2013, hundreds of Beitar hooligans stormed a Jerusalem mall, attacking Arab workers there in what one employee described as "a mass lynching attempt." The club denounced their actions, and 16 fans were eventually arrested. A few months later, a group of Beitar fans attacked a McDonald's where Arabs were among the staff.

Despite condemnation and police action against ultras, little has happened to rein in their most radical, violent elements. James Dorsey, an expert on the politics of soccer in the Middle East, writes that this negligence is part of the larger tragedy currently gripping the region.

The failure to confront La Familia has entrenched Palestinian perceptions of an Israeli society that is inherently racist. Israeli Palestinian Member of Parliament Ahmed Tibi has laid the blame for La Familia's excess at the doorstep of Israeli political and sports leaders. "For years, no one really tried to stop them, not the police, not the club, not the attorney-general and not the Israeli Football Association," he said.

At some point, the missiles and rockets may stop, but the simmering hatreds of groups like this one will remain.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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