TEL AVIV // They are viewed as Israel's most racist football supporters, regularly chanting "Death to the Arabs", "Death to Mohammed" and "I hate all the Arabs" at Arab or Muslim players.
However, in recent weeks there has been a rare public outcry against the ultranationalist fans of the Beitar Jerusalem football club, over their vocal protests against the signing of two Muslim players from Russia's Chechnya region last month.
The fans' chants have drawn condemnation from Israel's president, Shimon Peres, and from prominent Beitar fans such as Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, and Reuven Rivlin, a former parliamentary speaker.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier whose Likud party has long been linked to Beitar, and who is known as a supporter of the team, on Friday denounced as "shameful" the fans' protests against the Muslim signings.
The premier's criticism came hours after a fire at Beitar's offices, which police said could have been an arson attack by fans, that destroyed or damaged more than four decades-worth of team trophies and mementos, and the day after after police made arrests in an attempt to root out the racism during Beitar's games.
More than 600 Israeli police were deployed yesterday outside Jerusalem's Teddy stadium where Beitar - one of Israel's most successful football clubs and the only one in the first division never to have signed an Arab-Israeli player - play the Israeli Arab team Bnei Sakhnin in a home game that could serve as a test of the new public opposition to Beitar's far-right fans.
"We put 600 to 700 uniformed and plain clothes policemen in place to avoid any disorder and restrain any racist protest," Micky Rosenfeld, a security spokesman, told AFP.
Sakhnin supporters arriving on buses for the match were to be given police escort to Jerusalem, Mr Rosenfeld said.
The crackdown has drawn attention to more than just racism in Israel's most popular sport. It also represents a rare high-level public opposition to racism against Israel's Arab minority, who have long claimed they face widespread discrimination and hate from the Jewish majority.
"This is the first time we see such condemnation against the fans' racism," said Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, a co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a group promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence. "The Israeli society is touched by xenophobia and racism and Beitar is just the extreme end of this."
The uproar began two weeks ago when Arkady Gaydamak, the Russian-Jewish businessman who owns Beitar, announced the signing of Zaur Sadayev, a 23-year-old forward, and Gabriel Kadiev, a 19-year-old defender, from FC Terek Grozny. In protest, some fans held up a massive anti-Muslim banner that read "Beitar pure forever", and chanted "death to Arabs" and "may your village burn" at a game last month.
The fans belong to a group that calls itself La Familia and boasts several thousand members. Many are teenagers or in their 20s, and are often seen clad in Beitar's yellow and black football shirts during games.
The group has support from far-right figures such Michael Ben-Ari, a former MP who has called for African asylum-seekers to "get a bullet in the head", and who burnt a Palestinian flag after the Palestinians won an Israeli-opposed UN status upgrade in November.
At least three La Familia members contacted by telephone last week declined to be interviewed, saying they feared it may draw the authorities' attention to them.
Police said last week they would use phone-tapping and surveillance to limit La Familia's activities, and the group's website was suspended yesterday for unspecified reasons.
The government pledged on Thursday to transfer 200,000 shekels (Dh200,000) to Beitar's management to fight the racism.
La Familia has a history of being involved in violence. Following a Beitar game last year, hundreds of fans attacked Arab workers at the food court of a Jerusalem mall while shouting anti-Arab slogans.
Guy Israeli, a La Familia leader, said in a BBC documentary about the group last month that he was "proud" that Beitar had never had an Arab player.
"There will never be peace here," he said. "We hate Arabs not because they are Arab people, we hate Arabs because they want to kill us. They are my enemy."
Beitar was founded in 1936 and has won six national championships and seven state cups since the Israel was established in 1948.
A Beitar spokesman denied that the team had an unofficial policy of not recruiting Israeli Arabs and said it had been in talks with two Arab players last year who declined to join because of La Familia. Israeli Arabs make up a fifth of the population, and about 50 Arabs play for first-division sides, up from about 10 in the late 1970s.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab MP and the frequent target of racist chants by La Familia, said the Chechens "should not play with Beitar and give legitimacy to the most racist team in the world".
Sports analysts said Beitar needed to sign an Israeli-Arab if it wanted to improve its image.
Zohir Bahalul, a prominent Israeli-Arab sports commentator said: "Today most Arab players are not prepared to play for Beitar because of the racism. But it'll change if this war against the racists succeeds. And it will because the silent majority has started speaking out."