Netanyahu slams 'disgraceful' arson attack on Betar HQ

Incident seemingly connected to soccer club's battle against violence, racism after fans protest signing of 2 Muslim players.

Betar Jerusalem fans 370 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Betar Jerusalem fans 370
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday condemned an arson attack at Betar Jerusalem soccer club's offices overnight, calling it "disgraceful."
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 nations."
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.
"Initial 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 Galilee.
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 and migrants.
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 team.
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