Is the hatred between Beitar and Sakhnin fans merely a sports rivalry, or a symptom of a larger problem?
By JEREMY LAST
It's Monday afternoon, and there's a strangely relaxed atmosphere among the 60 or so Betar Jerusalem supporters waiting in the March sunshine in the parking lot outside their beloved Teddy Stadium.
Suddenly two or three teenagers, who look no more than 15 years old, begin dancing in a circle and singing loudly.
"I love Betar," they chant, "I hate Ahi Natzrat [a former Premier League team], I hate Bnei Sakhnin, there won't ever be any Arabs here."
The crowd hardly flinches - to them this is normal. They are the hard-core "Betarim" (Betar fans) and they are preparing to leave for one of the most important away games of the season - the match at Bnei Sakhnin, the only team in the Israeli Premier League based in an Arab town.
Much has been written about the rivalry between the most right-wing supporters of an Israeli team and those from the small Arab town in Galilee.
The previous match between Betar and Sakhnin at the Doha Stadium in January resulted in riots as the game finished, after Betar fans spilled out onto the pitch to escape a barrage of stones thrown by Sakhnin supporters outside the ground.
Some 20 people were injured after both teams' fans clashed with police who apparently did nothing to stop a group of Sakhnin fans smashing some of the windows of the Betar supporters' buses.
So there is reason to think the Betar fans would be planning revenge. But once we pile on to one of the buses, provided by Betar owner Arkadi Gaydamak, it becomes clear that many of these boys are fueled by racism, amplified by the rhetoric of the politicians.
One such role model is Hebron-based Baruch Marzel, leader of the Jewish National Front party. The American-born politician, who is campaigning for election to the next Knesset, has been hanging around the parking lot handing out yellow and black flyers encouraging supporters "not to forget that [Ehud] Olmert and [Ariel] Sharon gave Bnei Sakhnin NIS 5 million to build a stadium where Arabs incite to murder Jews, while 500,000 children remain hungry."
"What happened last time in Sakhnin was that Jews had a pogrom, by people who almost killed the Jews there, so we have to defend ourselves," Marzel tells In Jerusalem, before admitting that he is not a soccer fan and has never been to a game, let alone to Sakhnin itself.
As soon as the bus leaves Teddy things go from bad to worse. A young supporter sporting a Betar scarf begins chanting, "Death to the Arabs, death to the Arabs." And, without thinking about it, most of the 50 passengers join in.
During the three-hour journey the chants range from "Muhammad is dead" (referring to what the fans believe is a name which represents all Arabs), to more extremist songs praising Baruch Goldstein (who killed 29 Muslims in Hebron's Machpela Cave in 1994) to songs celebrating former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. The songs are catchy until you hear the words.
When the entire bus appears to know every word to a long song praising Rabin's murderer Yigal Amir, it becomes difficult to remember that we are simply traveling to support our favorite soccer team.
When any of the supporters attempt to sing a regular Betar song few respond. But when one person begins chanting "Kahane Hai" everyone responds joyfully.
Many wear kippot. During the journey a man recites Tefillat Haderech (Travelers' Prayer). Everyone listens quietly, and males not wearing a kippa cover their heads with a scarf. But as soon as they respond, "Amen," a "Death to the Arabs" chant begins.
At one point an Arab truck-driver travels alongside the bus. The supporters scream abuse through the window. He swerves a little and they throw garbage at him and threaten to kill him.
The journey reaches its climax during the climb through Galilee towards Sakhnin. For a time there is quiet, but as the bus drives through a few Arab towns the supporters perk up and resume shouting anti-Arab slogans. And while driving through Sakhnin itself the Betar fans think nothing of screaming at the people on the sidewalk, threatening to kill them. What could the local people of Sakhnin think of these so-called sports fans? "All the Arabs are whores," one youngster says, before adding with a smile, "except those who are sons of whores."
Sixteen-year-old Ya'acov tries to explain why he "hates all Arabs." "I was close to two suicide bombings, including the one at the Sbarro restaurant [in the summer of 2001]. Now I think we should get rid of them all."
But despite the threats of violence, it appears obvious that these people are far less menacing than some of the less aggressive English soccer hooligans.
The Betar fans all seem to have seen the recent movie Green Street Hooligans which tells of the fanatic violent supporters of English team West Ham and their rivalry with notorious London side Millwall.
"We are the football hooligans of Israel," 16-year-old Moshe says. "We are like Millwall and West Ham. I want to go to England and fight with West Ham."
But when the driver of the bus, who is clearly irked by the situation, stops the bus in the center of Sakhnin and threatens to force the youngsters to get off and walk the rest of the way, they soon quiet down, albeit not for long.
Strangely enough, when the fans are finally able to enter the Doha Stadium - the buses arrive 10 minutes after the game started - the atmosphere inside the ground is much less hateful. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that Betar was 3-0 up at halftime and won easily.
But on the way back to Jerusalem the chants begin again.
Eighteen-year-old Asaf, who is set to join an elite IDF unit, joins in some of the singing. When questioned, however, he appears to disagree with the fans' views.
"I used to be like that," he says, with a tired face. "But now I don't think like that."
He explains how the army courses he has taken recently and a visit to Poland helped change his opinion.
Asaf continues, "I work with Arabs and often go to Abu Ghosh to eat humous. I have many Arab friends."
He then tries to justify the hatred. "It's just a sports thing," he claims. "We hate Sakhnin and they hate us. Singing songs about [Sakhnin captain] Abas Suan dying of cancer is just part of the game."
But he thinks that calling for the death of all Arabs is going too far. "These kids," he says pointing to the youngsters now resting during the long journey home, "they don't know anything. Unfortunately it starts at home and in the synagogues. They cannot be convinced to change. They are all so closed-minded. It's like they are the ones living in a ghetto."
Two weeks ago the New Israel Fund launched its "Kick Racism out of Israeli soccer" campaign.
It began on Monday night with a ceremony before the game in Sakhnin. Unfortunately the Betar fans missed the beginning of the game and the ceremony due to arduous police searches.
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