By: Fern Sidman

Following the recent war between Israel and Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Italian soccer fans unfurled a banner reading “Free Palestine” at a match last Thursday in Rome when the Italian team “Lazio” played their British rivals the Tottenham Hotspur. Local media initially blamed Thursday’s attack on hard-core fans or ‘ultras’ supporting Lazio, who Tottenham had traveled to the capital to play in the Europa League.

The Tottenham club has a large contingent of Jewish fans and in addition to taunting the British fans with the provocative banner, witnesses told Italian media that masked men armed with knives and baseball bats shouted “Jews, Jews” as they laid siege to a pub where the Tottenham supporters were drinking in a district popular with tourists in an old quarter of Rome.

Ten people were injured in the attack, which left Ashley Mills, a 25-year-old English fan in serious condition. According to the Rome hospital where he is being treated, Mills underwent surgery for a severed artery in his leg on Friday and was being monitored by doctors.

Israeli flags are a common sight among Tottenham supporters at matches, and fans refer to themselves in chants as the ‘yid army.’ Lazio have long had fans with extreme right-wing sympathies, notorious for making Nazi salutes, unfurling anti-Semitic banners and chanting racist insults against black players.

Lazio issued a statement on Thursday saying any suggestion that the assailants were Lazio supporters was “totally groundless.” Israeli ambassador to Italy Naor Gilon told reporters the attack on the Tottenham supporters, stemmed from “a new trend of anti-Semitism in Europe.” On Friday, the World Jewish Congress called for Lazio’s suspension from European soccer if they failed to take action against hard core anti-Semitic supporters. Media reports said Lazio fans chanted “Juden Tottenham, Juden Tottenham” at the match on Thursday.

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress said, “It seems that all those expensive campaigns against racism that were run in recent years by UEFA, FIFA and others have not made a lasting impression, at least not on serial offenders such as certain supporters of Lazio.” He added that, “The only way to overcome this ugly phenomenon is to threaten tough consequences for clubs who don’t take their obligation seriously to keep hatemongers and racist thugs out of stadiums. This problem of racist Lazio supporters is not new, and it ought to be taken more seriously by all people concerned. Imposing fines on the clubs whose fans misbehave in such a way is obviously completely ineffective.”

The AFP news service reported that Italian football federation chief Giancarlo Abete wrote a letter saying: “Once again, unfortunately, football has been used as a vehicle by mindless thugs to express their racist and anti-Semitic views.” The letter also stated that, “This was unquestionably the motive behind this attack, which has damaged the image of our football and does not reflect the real tradition of warmth and hospitality of the city of Rome.”

Among the 15 people detained by authorities for alleged involvement in the mass attack on the downtown bar were two supporters of AS Roma, Lazio’s bitter city rivals, suggesting a possibly different motivation.

Fears have been stoked fears throughout Italy in light of rising right-wing and anti-Semitic violence and Rome has been rattled by increasing militancy by the extreme right since October, with weekly demonstrations by the neo-fascist youth group Blocco Studentesco, often ending in clashes with police.

The head of the city’s Jewish community, Ricardo Pacifici, said the attack showed Jews were not sufficiently protected. Police commissioner Giuseppe Pecoraro rejected the accusation, which he called a provocation. “The police do more for the Jewish community in Rome than anywhere else in the world,” he said. Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of Rome announced 21 million euros ($27 million) in funding for a Holocaust Museum “to give an immediate response to the many signs of anti-Semitism that have occurred recently in our city.”

Alemanno is himself a former neo-fascist youth leader who was greeted with fascist salutes and cries of “Duce! Duce!” – the term adopted by Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini when he was elected mayor in 2008.

The European far right has gained increased support as the continent’s economic crisis has deepened, especially in the debt-laden south. Its most startling rise has been in the worst hit country, Greece, where the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn group has flourished. Just last week, Italian police arrested four people for allegedly inciting racial hatred through the website of the white supremacist movement Stormfront, confiscating a variety of weapons and neo-Nazi propaganda, after the group published a list of prominent Jewish citizens.

Teenagers carrying neo-fascist flags stormed a high school last month, tossing smoke bombs into classrooms as lessons were being taught, in a raid interpreted in Italy as an attempt by Blocco Studentesco to assert control over its turf. Shortly afterwards a school due to host a meeting with local authorities about the “neo-fascist resurgence in schools” was daubed with swastikas, Celtic crosses and the word ‘Hitler.’