Fans of the controversial Beitar Jerusalem team shocked the Israeli sports community after a small confrontation with fans of a rival team sparked a violent display at a game in Belgium Thursday night.
Several dozens of the fans who traveled with the team for the game in Belgium clashed with locals a day before the game, and during the game itself threw firecracker and smoke grenades onto the field and hung a racist flag, leading play to be suspended. The worst of it was when an object thrown from the Beitar Jerusalem stands which hit the Charleroi goalie, who was injured and needed treatment.
Heavy fines are expected to be imposed on the team, and the team's owner has pledged to withdraw all support.
"The behavior of Beitar Jerusalem's fans in Belgium was a PR terror attack against the State of Israel," an Israeli diplomat said Saturday.
"Beitar fans did real damage to Israel's image in the world with their horror show of violence, racism and brutish behavior. For many who watched this spectacle, there was no difference between Beitar Jerusalem fans and the common Israeli. The rioters shamed an entire country. A lot of effort will be required to fix the impression these hooligans left."
The Foreign Ministry is following the reports on the Beitar fans' behavior in the European media, particularly in Belgium, with concern. Many of these reports portrayed these fans as terrorists and accused them of vandalism.
"Not too long ago, Israel was able to thwart a Palestinian plot in FIFA to kick Israel from soccer games and here come Beitar fans and with one fell swoop they could cause our exclusion from soccer in Europe," the diplomat said.
Acting Police Commissioner Benzi Sau announced that the incident would be investigated by Jerusalem District Police in cooperation with Belgian law enforcement. Police said several Beitar fans were questioned on their return to Israel on Friday.
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he and Israel's internal security minister had discussed legal options against what he described as an unruly minority among Beitar's supporters.
"We will not allow them to besmirch the club's entire fan base or harm the country's image," Netanyahu said.
The team's owner has stated that he plans to leave the team and Israeli soccer as a whole as a result of the events. "I am ashamed and shocked by the behavior of part of the crowd tonight. The whole world watched the horror, this embarrassing horror show, conducted by the same radical group who are not true Beitar fans in my eyes," Tabib said. "Tonight officially marked the end of my role in Israeli soccer, and specifically with Beitar Jerusalem," he said.
The football club is predicted to receive a serious penalty from the European football governing association - UEFA. The punishment comes in response to the actions of the club's fans, which included pelting the pitch with smoke grenades, after Belgian club fans reportedly sang anti-Semitic chants. The smoke grenades required play to be suspended, during which the fans managed to hit the Charleroi goalie in the head with an object thrown from the bleachers, forcing him to seek medical attention. Beitar finished the game with nine players, after two players fouled out.
Beitar fans getting riled up. (Photo: AFP)
The league's manager said in response to the events, "It’s a shame that after years in which Israeli fans provided exemplary support to their teams in Europe, a portion of Beitar fans managed to completely embarrass Israeli soccer as a whole, and their team specifically."
"Throwing smoke grenades on the pitch, whilst hanging a 'Kahane is alive' flag, represents the epitome of reckless and disrespectful behavior to anyone working in football." Meir Kahane was a far-right American-Israeli rabbi who's views on Palestinians earned him the reputation of a racist before he was assassinated in New York by an Arab gunman.
"Although this game does not fall under the league's purview, we see it right to express our outrage at the behavior of these Beitar fans," the league's management added.
The chairman of the League, Yoram Bauman added, "These fans need to be expelled from the soccer fields once and for all. It’s a disgrace. I am ashamed of them."
Minister of Sport Miri Regev also reacted to the incident, saying, "It’s a shame that the Beitar fans choose to embarrass the whole of Israel soccer, and their team specifically. The violent behavior which included throwing smoke bombs onto the pitch represents a type of wild behavior, which lacks even the slightest respect for anyone working in the sport."
"I feel the need to condemn all violence of any type by soccer fans. A small group of Beitar fans hurt the club's reputation. Their behavior is unacceptable. I find it right to summon the relevant authorities in order to decide on the matter of the harsh punishment which will follow," she added.
Beitar went on to lose the match 5-1.
Reuters contributed to this report.