OCCUPIED JERUSALEM - Plans to sign two Muslim players into an Israeli football team have invoked racism against non-Jews on the Israeli pitch.
"I was shocked by the racism displayed in the Beitar Jerusalem stands yesterday against having Muslim or Arab players on the team," Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Sunday, January 27, Reuters reported.
"We cannot ignore these displays of racism which not long ago were directed - and are still being directed - towards the Jewish people," he wrote on Twitter.
Beitar Jerusalem club is planning to sign two Chechen players; Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, from Russian premier league club Terek Grozny.
But the plans have angered the team's fans, who chanted racist slogans against Muslim players.
"Beitar will always remain pure," read a banner held by supporters at a Premier League game on Saturday.
Other signs hoisted by fans also protested against its owner's intention to have two Muslim Chechen players join.
Three fans were arrested on suspicion of incitement and they were due to appear in court later on Sunday.
The Israel Football Association (IFA) said it would take disciplinary action against the club.
In a ruling against the team a year ago, an IFA court said that Beitar Jerusalem "had not made an honest effort to combat fans' racist chants".
Beitar Jerusalem is now in fourth place in the Premier League, a position that could earn it a place in European club play next season.
This is not the first time Muslim players face racism in Israel.
Nigerian defender Ibrahim Nadalla briefly played for the Israeli team in 2005 but left after experiencing consistent hostility from its supporters.
The racist chants against Muslim players have also invoked dismay inside Israel.
"Today is International Holocaust Day," Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin told army radio.
"Imagine what would happen if groups in England or Germany determined that a Jew couldn't play for them, said Rivlin, who is a Beitar fan.
We support the battle against fascism and racism, and we should lead it," he said of Israel.
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat was also critical.
"We cannot... discriminate against Muslim or Christian players from being in our teams. This is not just about football, but a Jewish and national interest."
The club owner, however, insisted that the chants do not represent their opinion about Muslim players.
"(The) small group of so-called supporters of Beitar Jerusalem do not represent the general opinion of the Israeli public, and they should not be allowed to win," Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaydamak told Israeli Army Radio.
Arab citizens make up around 20 percent of Israel's population of 7.8 million and no other Israeli club, many of whom have Arab players, has ever effectively barred them.
Arab players have long been included in Israel's national team.Rifaat Turk, the first Arab to play for Israel's national team during an international career from 1976 to 1986, said Beitar Jerusalem's fans had shown "wanton racism". He called on the IFA to take firm action against the club.