JERUSALEM - An Israeli Premier League club which has an unofficial tradition of not signing Arab or Muslim players welcomed two Muslim-Chechen footballers on Wednesday amid rising tensions from its own fans.
Beitar Jerusalem has fans who are known for being hostile to Muslims and Arabs and who have opposed the Chechens' arrival.
At a league game on Saturday, some chanted anti-Muslim slogans and unfurled a sign protesting the arrival of Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev. Three fans were arrested for the behaviour, which drew widespread condemnation from ranks as senior as Israel's president.
At a news conference shortly after their arrival, Sadayev and Kadiev seemed unfazed by the fans' behaviour as they donned their yellow and black Beitar jerseys.
"I'm happy I came here," said Sadayev, a 23-year-old forward signed from FC Terek Grozny. "And I will please the fans with my game."
Kadiev, a 19-year-old defender from the same team, said he was "not afraid" of playing in front of Beitar fans.
Beitar fans have been punished in the past for displays similar to Saturday's and police beefed up security at a match on Tuesday, when Beitar played a team from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. At first, police decreed an empty stadium but then reneged. Hundreds of police, some on horseback, patrolled inside and outside the stadium and said they would arrest anyone displaying racist behaviour. No major incidents were reported, and 12 fans from both sides were banned from the game.
Highlighting the gravity of the fans' behaviour, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat attended Wednesday's news conference, seated near the two Chechen players. He denounced violence and racism.
Beitar coach Eli Cohen acknowledged the fans' rowdiness, but hoped the Chechens' arrival might chart a new course for the team.
"I know there will be growing pains but I believe that this club will embark on a new journey and will change its image," he said.
Beitar's next game is on Sunday against Ironi Ramat HaSharon.