Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday condemned an arson attack at
Betar Jerusalem soccer club's offices overnight, calling it
Vandals set the offices on fire
overnight Thursday, in what police are treating as a criminal attack. It
appears as though the incident is a continuation of a clash between the
soccer club and its fans over the signing of two new Muslim players.
Two firefighting crews responded to flames engulfing the offices at the team's practice facility in the Bayit V'gan neighborhood of Jerusalem in the early hours of Friday morning. Jerusalem Fire and Rescue spokesman Asaf Abras said the fire, which was immediately identified as arson, wreaked havoc in the office rooms, covering the inside with soot and smoke. The fire also destroyed Betar memorabilia.
"We must not tolerate racism of
this kind," the prime minister said. "The Jewish people specifically,
who suffered boycotts and ostracism, must serve as a light unto the
The club has struggled for the past two weeks with a violent group of fans who oppose the signing of two Muslim Chechnyan players. During the January 26 game against Bnei Yehuda, fans raised an enormous banner that read “Betar pure forever” and sang anti-Arab chants.
Police have arrested more than twenty people in connection with violence and incitement against the team. Last Friday, police arrested three fans after they showed up outside of the team’s Friday practice and threw rocks at the players’ cars and attacked a security guard. On Thursday, the Jerusalem District Attorney indicted four fans for their role in the "Betar is pure forever" sign.
Police spokesman Micky
Rosenfeld said the fire, which caused no injuries, caused "extensive
damage" to the premises next to the team's main training grounds.
findings show the blaze was caused by a number of suspects" and police
were investigating a possible link to protests over the team's signing
up of two Chechen Muslim players last month, Rosenfeld said.
Upon seeing the damage, Betar chairman Itzik Kornfein said the attack was "awful." "I have no doubt that the police will reach the culprits and put them behind bars. Betar will continue to fight racism and violence without fear," he said, adding that the arson would not deter the team.
Betar Jerusalem responded
furiously to the incident, saying that the arson attack "crosses a red
line when it comes to the issues of violence and racism that we are
dealing with," according the Sport5 website. "The people who perpetrated
this despicable act caused indescribable damage to memorabilia
connected to Betar's history."
The soccer club stated that it
would cooperate with the police to find the perpetrators and bring them
to justice. Betar added that despite the incident, it would continue in
its fight against violence and racism.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir
Barkat said police would take "a heavy hand to put an end to this
issue," and praised the club for what he saw as steps toward "fighting
racism and violence."
Culture and Sport
Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) slammed
the arson attack on Friday morning, calling it a dangerous, violent and
serious criminal act.
She urged the legal authorities and courts to send a clear message that
sporting ground are not beyond the law, and neither are the lawbreakers.
She also stated her intention to show her support for the soccer team's
managers by attending the match on Sunday at Teddy Stadium, where Betar
Jerusalem is set
to play Bnei Sakhnin, a team from the Arab city of Sakhnin in the
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby said the stadium will be open to fans with a "markedly increased" police presence. After the original incident with the banner, the team considered playing games to empty stadiums in order to avoid additional problems.
Also reacting to the incident on Friday morning, MK Omer
Bar-Lev (Labor) strongly condemned the attack. Bar-Lev stated that the
recent incidents of violence connected to the soccer team are part of a
wider phenomenon in Israel society, which he said among other factors,
can be attributed to the behavior of MKs and public figures which
trickle down to the youth and public.
"In the past two weeks we
have again witnessed the ugly reality on soccer fields, this time in
the form of racism... from a handful of Betar Jerusalem fans, who are
protesting against the decision to add to the group's ranks players of
Muslim descent," Bar-Lev wrote on his Facebook page.
He said the
incident overnight did not "pop out of nowhere," but symbolizes the
deterioration of the education system and Israeli society, and "the fact
that MKs and public leaders allow themselves" to incite against Arabs
He called on the new set of MKs to abide by their
duty to resolve the issue of violence in society, through legislation,
enforcement, education and most of all, through the message that they
convey to to the public.
Bar-Lev echoed Livnat's opinion that it is important to support the management of Betar Jerusalem ahead of the game on Sunday.
The attack followed two indictments filed by the Jerusalem District Attorney earlier Thursday in the
magistrate’s court against four Betar Jerusalem fans for making racist
statements against Arabs and Muslims, including the new players that had joined the
Alongside the legal measures being taken, activists are also waging a battle against the phenomenon
under the banner of the Bright Tag coalition, comprising 35 religious
and secular groups. The Bright Tag activists were scheduled to
demonstrate outside Teddy Stadium on Sunday.
Melanie Lidman and Reuters contributed to this report