TEL AVIV (JTA) — After decades of dealing with war and terrorism, Israel appears to be waking up to a new security threat: sports hooliganism.
Back-to-back incidents of extreme unruliness by soccer and basketball fans have stirred debate here over whether violence somehow has become innate to the Jewish state.
It began on Nov. 3, when hundreds of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team refused to observe a minute of silence during an away game to mark the 12th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Instead, many of them whistled and sang songs in praise of the prime minister’s jailed killer, Yigal Amir.
That prompted a rare public rebuke from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a lifelong Beitar Jerusalem supporter.
“This behavior — by a large, loud, influential and raging group, and not by a small group as those who would play it down might put it — was wicked and unconscionable,” Olmert said during a speech that was broadcast live.
Then, on Sunday, Israeli sportsmanship hit a new nadir.
In the final minute of a basketball game between Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Jerusalem, a firecracker was thrown on the court. In a bid to spare the players injury, a security guard scooped up the device and tried to throw it aside, but it exploded too soon. The guard lost three fingers.
Pictures of the horrible injury and the stunned courtside crowd were splashed on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers.
“At this rate, someone is going to get killed,” said Mickey Dorsman, the owner of Hapoel Holon.
Dorsman, in an interview with Israel Radio, said Israeli society is descending to an alarming level of casual violence.
“Somehow, the collective finger has become light on the trigger,” he said.
The authorities are not doing enough to address the problem, Dorsman charged, saying the police should do more to stop fans smuggling dangerous objects into sporting events.
“There should be the same precautions as are taken at airports, and if that means body searches that take hours, then so be it,” he said.
Though police maintain a presence at major sporting events, their main concern long has been preventing terrorist attacks against fans. Crowd control is secondary for a police force many say is stretched too thin and underfunded.
“This matter is a police responsibility, but not exclusively,” Israel’s internal security minister, Avi Dichter, said.
Four Hapoel Holon fans were arrested in the firecracker incident. According to media reports, one confessed to throwing the device, apparently in an attempt to disrupt the game and prevent his team from losing.
Ghaleb Majadle, Israel’s sports minister, called for the culprit to be prosecuted with extraordinary severity.
“This has to bring about a state of emergency, with all that entails,” Majadle said on Army Radio. “We need to tackle it without mercy and immediately. We should not aim to educate, but to punish and punish harshly.”
Some pundits suggest punishing rowdy fans by denying their team ticket income.
“Soccer and basketball, the two branches of sport that are heavily popular with spectators, are desperately in need of serious shock treatment, a revolution,” veteran political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in a column in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot.
“The explosion at the game in Jerusalem is not just a sporting disaster. It is also an opportunity,” he wrote. “So this is my proposal: The team whose fan it was that blew up the game last night should be excluded from all further scheduled matches.”
League organizers already have taken a stern line by setting a new precedent in the case of Beitar Jerusalem. Following the anti-Rabin catcalls, Israel’s Soccer Federation ruled that Beitar’s supporters be barred from its next two Premier League games.