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Israelis fed up with racist, anti-Muslim behavior of soccer fans

Most Beitar Jerusalem soccer team supporters have had enough of the racist and anti-Muslim behavior of La Familia fan club.
Fans of Beitar Jerusalem soccer club La Familia clash with other team fans during a training session, Jerusalem, Dec. 11, 2020.

The Beitar Jerusalem soccer club experienced a sad and stormy evening Oct. 18 with its 1-0 defeat deep in overtime by its bitter enemy, Hapoel Tel Aviv. But the game will undoubtedly be remembered for the unprecedented violence in the bleachers rather than for the players’ performance.

It all began when Beitar’s latest acquisition — midfielder Kamsu Mara from Guinea — began warming up for his debut appearance on the field, prompting the displeasure of a group of radical Beitar fans due to his Muslim faith. Brawls broke out in the bleachers when some club fans cheered Mara, defying orders from the Ultras, who call themselves “La Familia” to refrain from encouraging the Muslim player.

“We were punched and kicked only because we encouraged the team. One of them screamed at me, 'Get out of here, there’s no room in the stands for women and for the handicapped,' and then kicked me,” a 23-year-old fan described her beating at the hands of the Ultras, recalling the fear she felt as she searched for her crutches and waited to be evacuated to hospital for treatment. Video footage of the incident clearly shows her being kicked in her injured leg, and quite a number of other fans including a soldier being attacked during the shameful violence by fans whose only sin was encouraging their team.

The violent scenes generated sweeping anger throughout Israel’s vibrant soccer world, prompting club owner Moshe Hogeg to post a clip in which he inquired about the injuries of the disabled fan and stated that as far as he was concerned, “La Familia is a terrorist organization.” He urged authorities to act now before it is too late.

Beitar Jerusalem Chair Eli Ohana, a retired famous Israeli player who is closely identified with the club, issued a harsh statement censuring the Ultras. “These [La Familia] are enemies of Beitar Jerusalem and we don’t want them here. I have often tried pacifying them, but this is beyond the pale,” he said. “Who does this — kicking and stepping on the head of a disabled woman and a military veteran? This has gone too far. It’s time to say we don’t want you; we don’t need you; we can’t stand you; leave us alone.”

Former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who served in the past as club chair, penned an op-ed in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper appealing to the ministers of culture and sports, justice and public security as well as the police commissioner to “give us back our club, because we can no longer do it on our own.” Rivlin urged legislation against such a “criminal organization” that would anchor in law the distancing and fining of violent fans, and called on police to arrest the hooligans. “Restore the Beitar heartbeat, now, today,” Rivlin wrote.

The former president’s call for legislation to combat soccer violence was underscored by a Tel Aviv Magistrate Court judge who sentenced two of the La Familia rioters arrested after the melee to a 90-day ban from the club’s games despite repeated calls in recent years to crack down on sports violence, and although the police asked the court to ban them for a whole year. The ruling generated public anger, with Beitar Jerusalem describing it as “spitting in the face of the injured fans and all Israeli soccer fans, completely contradicting all the promises and declarations of recent days.”

The violence by La Familia against the team’s own fans was an escalation of its well-documented racist reactions to any Arab or Muslim players signed by the club, which had always barred Arab players until recent years. In 2013, fans raised a banner in the stands stating “Beitar forever pure,” in response to the intentions of then-owner Arkadi Gaydamak to sign on two Chechen Muslim Premier League players, Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev. Fans, led by La Familia, launched a violent campaign designed to expel the Muslim players, replete with racist slogans, game boycotts and even the torching of the Beitar clubhouse. Their campaign succeeded with the players leaving the club within months.

Buoyed by the outcome of this and similar violent campaigns, La Familia held a violent demonstration at the Beitar training grounds last year when news emerged that Hogeg was advancing an investment in the club by entrepreneurs from Abu Dhabi. The Ultras also issued a statement saying, “As far as we’re concerned, money doesn’t count. Principles above all else. The end does not justify all means.” Their anger was prompted, once again, by the potential investor’s identity — an Arab Muslim.

In explaining the situation to Al-Monitor, Beitar Jerusalem fan Yaakov Sela said the context of La Familia’s recent violence was far broader than just the cheering of the Muslim Guinean player. It involves an ongoing conflict between the Ultras and Hogeg. The owner sued them for losses to the club after they started boycotting the club’s home games, only attending away games, to deprive the club of ticket sale revenues, Sela explained.

Most Beitar fans oppose last week’s violence in the stands, as reflected in the many talkbacks in response to La Familia’s Oct. 20 Facebook post on the matter. It claims that La Familia is against the violence that occurred last week, but also says it will let no one blow up this issue out of propositions or spread fake news. The comments on the post have since been turned off.

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