Emotional … Beitar Jerusalem supporters at Sunday's match against Bnei Sakhnin. Some Beitar fans are dismayed and ashamed of fellow supporters. Photo: AP
JERUSALEM: As the roar of the crowd grew louder and hundreds of police kept a careful watch on volatile fans, a young Muslim football player ran onto the field, at once hated and embraced by supporters of the nationalist Beitar Jerusalem club.
Beitar's hardcore fans are furious over the club's decision to recruit two Chechen Muslim players - Gabriel Kadiev and Zaur Sadaev - and they made their feelings known when 19-year-old Kadiev entered the game on Sunday night, screaming their disapproval every time he touched the ball. Other fans cheered him but they were drowned out.
Until it signed the two players last month, Beitar was the only club in Israel's national league that had never fielded a Muslim or an Arab player. Ultra-nationalist members held up a sign declaring ''Beitar forever pure'' to protest against their arrival.
''My son is in the youth team of Beitar and I feel ashamed,'' said one middle-aged man, who did not want to be named, as the crowd chanted for the resignation of the team's coach and owner on Sunday.
His friend, 60-year-old Shabtai Barash, shared his concern.
''I am here in support of the players - I do not care if they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish …
''We are worried, we are afraid and we believe the police and the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] need to show leadership and say something to these fans, who all support Netanyahu,'' Mr Barash said.
The extremist fans at Sunday's match between Beitar and the Israeli-Arab team Bnei Sakhnin at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium did not represent the club, he said.
''They are just a minority and we are here to raise our voice against them.''
But just a few rows along, in the yellow and black sea of Beitar fans, it was a different story.
''We hate the Arabs and we want them out,'' said 24-year-old waitress Reut, who did not want to give her last name. ''We are against the Muslims. We do not want them in our team, ever. This is my country, it is not their place.''
Her friends vowed to ''make their lives [of the Muslim players] hell until they leave''.
Sadaev and Kadiev have been abused and spat on by fans, and now travel with police protection. On Friday, Beitar's club premises were set on fire and police suspect the team's own fans.
The former prime minister and lifelong Beitar fan Ehud Olmert wrote an impassioned plea in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth for the racism to end, vowing not to attend another game because of the fans' behaviour.
''It does not matter if the fans who waved the banners actually realised what the broader significance of the phrase 'Pure Beitar' is and its connection to the terrible expressions used by haters of Israel and anti-Semites. The very use of this phrase expresses hatred, contempt, disgust, intolerance and zealotry of the darkest kind.''
Beitar has deep ties to the Likud Party of Mr Netanyahu. Its followers are mostly Mizrahi Jews who came from countries in the Middle East and North Africa and who have traditionally been economically disadvantaged and underrepresented compared with their Ashkenazi fellow-citizens.
On Sunday Mr Netanyahu said: ''We want unity, dialogue and cohesiveness. The last thing we want, and which we absolutely reject is violence, racism and boycotts.''
But the Arab-Israeli politician Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Knesset and a sponsor of the Bnei Sakhnin club, said political and sporting leaders had allowed racism to fester.
''We are not talking about 10 fans, we are talking about thousands of fans … and during the last year they shouted racist slogans inside and outside the stadium and no one really tried to stop them, not the police, not the club, not the attorney-general and not the Israeli Football Association,'' Mr Tibi said.
Israel was acting now only because it was embarrassed by the international focus on the treatment of the Chechen players, Mr Tibi said.
''Racism has become mainstream in society and Israel is not debating it or confronting it,'' he said.