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Police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi has launched an investigation into police conduct during riots which followed Saturday's goalless soccer match between Israel's premier Arab team, Bnei Sakhnin, and Betar Jerusalem at the former's home turf. The very fact that such an investigation has been so quickly mandated is itself an admission that the police may not have handled themselves in sterling fashion.
The 4,000 cheering Sakhnin fans and 350 visiting Jerusalemites doubtlessly arrived with preset agendas. The match underscored ethnic and national hostilities. It began with firecrackers repeatedly hurled by Sakhnin supporters aiming for the Betar goalie, accompanied by rocks, some very sizable.
Bottles were hurled into the Betar stands (no bottles were sold to Betar fans). Shouts of "death to the Jews" quickly elicited retaliatory "death to the Arabs" responses. Flaming torches were lit and held aloft throughout the game in the Sakhnin benches, and one burning torch was lobbed on to the field. Betar fans, not known to be shrinking violets, were attacked and then went on their own rampage.
Both sides in these clashes cite police inaction and failure to stem the disturbances early on.
Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra has vowed that the police "will learn its lessons," that "changes in police district command may ensue" and that police presence at matches will be boosted. The trouble is that we've been there, seen that. Ezra's undertakings aren't new.
It isn't necessarily the number of officers that constituted the problem but their mind-set. Policemen were loath to step in and control the crowds.
In the police's own high echelons the origin of the problem is traced back to the October 2000 riots. Since then officers evince unmistakable dread to enforce the law in the Arab community. Many fear that use of force will result in internal investigations, inquiry commissions or even trials. The Sakhnin game seems to be a classic case of police trying their best not to get involved.
The violence in Sakhnin's spanking new Doha Stadium was hardly unusual for sports chroniclers. Soccer hooliganism is probably as old as the game though it wasn't recorded till the early 19th century. Often, instead of giving vent to tensions, the game amplifies them in a bizarre demonstration of communal camaraderie, if not tribalism.
The referee should have cancelled the game as soon as the first firecracker exploded. But to do so in Sakhnin would have been to risk pandemonium, especially since the firecracker ban is generally not used to cancel games.
After the game, in an attempt to segregate rival fans, the police first let out the thousands of Sakhnin supporters. However, the local fans then surrounded the guests and began stoning them. Things became so dangerous that officers led Betar supporters into the field. Betar tempers flared. The visitors began retaliating and taking out their fury on goal nets, seats, fence posts or anyone who got in their way.
As TV footage and witnesses from both sides attest, the 350 policemen, bolstered by 150 local security staff, did too little to maintain order. Only when border policemen appeared could the Jerusalem-bound buses exit Sakhnin.
This isn't mere sports-related rowdiness. The Sakhnin incident highlights increasing police reluctance to operate in Arab communities. Indeed the lack of adequate police response recalls the 2003 illegal construction of a gigantic mosque, later removed, in front of Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation; the attack on Christian dwellers in Mughar last year; and the lynching in Shfaram of terrorist Eran Natan Zada.
If ever the police did have to demonstrate its reliability and commitment to the rule of law, it is particularly in minority communities. Chronically lackadaisical law enforcement in the Arab sector must be replaced by no-nonsense imposition of order, and not just to prevent the spread of violence to other communities. Right now police hesitate to even enter Arab towns, even at a price of turning a blind eye to serious crime.
Such absence does Israel's Arabs no favor. Middle-class Arab families in Triangle towns complain about the difficulty of keeping their youngsters on the straight and narrow because of police timidity. It's dangerous to give offenders the impression that they can get away with anything. Preventing thuggery isn't imprudent provocation; on the contrary, the failure to protect will most quickly lead to further loss of control.