Anti-Arab soccer fans rampage in shopping centre – but no arrests

Jerusalem

Buoyed by a home win, Jewish fans of football club Beitar Jerusalem this week rampaged through a nearby shopping centre following an evening match, attacking Arab workers and shoppers in one of the worst racial brawls seen in the city in recent years.

The entire episode, which occurred at Jerusalem's Malha Mall on Monday night, was captured on closed-circuit television, but Israeli police made no arrests, and the incident received no media attention until yesterday, prompting fury in Israel's blogosphere.

The attacks are the culmination of a long record of violent and anti-Arab behaviour by ultranationalist fans at Beitar, a club identified with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party. The Israeli Football Association's efforts to rein in the club's unruly fans have so far met with limited success.

The incident started after a game at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium, where Beitar beat Tel Aviv's Bnei Yehuda, saving the once successful team from imminent relegation. Hundreds of fans, mostly teenagers, descended on busy Malha Mall, jumping on tables, waving scarves, and chanting "Death to Arabs".

When a group of fans started to heckle and spit on Palestinian women dining with their children in the food hall, the centre's Arab cleaning staff rushed to their defence and chased the fans off. But moments later, the fans returned, and started to attack the Arab staff.

"They [the fans] caught some of them and beat the hell out of them," Yair, the Jewish owner of a bakery in the shopping centre, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper. "They hurled people into shops, and smashed them against shop windows. ... One cleaner was attacked by some 20 people, poor guy." The brawl might have turned deadly, but food hall staff refused to respond to fans' demands for knives and sticks. It was only when police arrived 40 minutes later the situation was brought under control.

"I've been here many years and I've never seen such a thing," Haaretz quoted Gideon Avrahami, Malha's director, as saying. "It was a disgraceful, shocking, racist incident; simply terrible."

The police defended its failure to make any arrests, saying it had received no complaints from any of the public, a response that drew immediate derision. "No complaints and no arrests. Does this mean riots against Arabs in malls is acceptable behaviour in Israel?" tweeted Joseph Dana, an Israeli blogger.

Shmulik Ben Rubi, a Jerusalem police spokesman, later told The Independent the police would investigate the incident, which might lead to arrests.

But many believe the shopping mall riot is part of a wider malaise in Israeli society, where the country's Arab minority, 20 per cent of all Israelis, is discriminated against, often with impunity. Beitar, the most overtly racist club in the country, has an unspoken policy it does not hire Israeli Arab players, in part because of the backlash management would face from its die-hard fans.

Bad behaviour is endemic in the stands, where fans heckle Arab and black players from opposing teams. Israel's FA tried to penalise the team for the fans' behaviour by docking Beitar points and making the team play in an empty stadium, moves criticised as failing to hold individual perpetrators to account.

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