A video shows an Egyptian football fan smiling happily as an Israeli broadcaster introduces him live on air. Then he leans into the microphone with an announcement: “Viva Palestine”.
Another clip from the streets of Doha this week shows a group of Lebanese men walking away from a live interview with a reporter they’ve just learned is Israeli. One yells over his shoulder, “There is no Israel. It is Palestine.”
While hundreds of thousands of people from around the world flocked to Qatar for the World Cup this week, it is among the awkward encounters between Arab football fans and Israeli journalists that have gone viral on Middle East social media, one of many political sources highlighting tensions at a tournament , which has not yet shaken off its countless controversies.
For the host country, hosting the World Cup has involved delicate negotiations over the attendance of LGBTQ+ fans, public displays of love and the availability of beer and wine. Less prominent in the West, but no less strained, was the emirate’s accommodation of Israeli football fans and media, a concession to Fifa rules for hosting the multi-billion dollar tournament.
Qatar has no official ties with Israel, but has granted special permission for direct flights from Tel Aviv and allows Israeli diplomats to be stationed at a travel agency in the country to provide consular assistance to their nationals. Aware of domestic opinion, however, it has insisted the measures are strictly temporary and not moves towards a normalization deal like several other Arab states have signed in recent years.
Although neither Israel nor Palestine take part in the tournament, the latter has featured prominently in the inaugural World Cup in the Middle East. Ahead of Sunday’s opening game, a phalanx of Qatari men marched into Al-Bayt Stadium chanting “Everyone is welcome” and carrying a large Palestinian flag. “We care about the people of Palestine and all Muslims and Arab countries are flying Palestinian flags because we are for them,” the flag-bearer told the Guardian.
Fans from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Algeria have also prominently carried Palestinian flags at matches, wearing them as capes around their necks. On Thursday, Randa Ahmer, a young Palestinian woman, stood in Doha’s busy Souq Waqif and waved a Palestinian flag over the international crowd. “It’s our country, we will carry our flag everywhere,” she said as passers-by shouted messages of support.
Fifa touted its deal with Qatar to allow Israelis to fly to Doha, claiming the deal also allows Palestinians to make the trip from Tel Aviv, but nearly a week into the tournament it was unclear how many had made it , to overcome the extensive Israeli security checks that are required for the trip. Some of those who made it to Qatar had come via Jordan or Egypt.
By the start of the tournament, nearly 4,000 Israeli and 8,000 Palestinian fans had been granted visas to enter Qatar, although Israel’s foreign minister said it was expected that up to 20,000 Israelis would eventually be able to travel there.
A kosher kitchen has been set up near Doha Airport to provide Israeli fans with a place to gather and eat that meets religious requirements.
Duby Nevo, an Israeli national, preparing for his arrival in Doha over the weekend, said he has been following reports of Palestinian activism at the tournament with some concern. “I hope the Qataris are welcome and everything will be fine,” he said. “I really hope to meet people from all over the world and especially from Arab countries – if they want to make friends. I just want to enjoy [the football]no conflicts.”
Another Israeli, who gave only his first name, Bahaa, said the organization of the tournament and the atmosphere in the country were excellent, but there was a downside: “The majority of the crowds here don’t accept the presence of Israelis.”
Others said they found a welcoming environment but took precautions. “We are not afraid to be here in Qatar as Israelis, they are very friendly and we do not feel the politics between the countries,” said Omer Laufer. “Sometimes we say that we are from Cyprus – but only to people from Arab countries.”
As the viral videos have shown, the Israeli media has borne the brunt of the enduring antipathy with which their country is viewed by the Arab population, even though many of their governments have now signed deals recognizing Israeli sovereignty with the establishment of trade ties started and brought their security cooperation to light.
Channel 13 Israeli sports reporter Tal Shorrer told the Associated Press that while his interactions with Qatari officials had been pleasant, he was pushed and insulted by Palestinians and other Arab fans during his live broadcasts from the city.
When a cellphone salesman noticed his friend’s settings in Hebrew, Shorrer said the man exploded in anger and yelled at the Israeli to leave the country.
“I was so excited to come in with an Israeli passport because I thought it would be something positive,” he said. “It’s sad, it’s uncomfortable. People insulted and threatened us.”
Israeli diplomats are aware of the sensitivities of a tournament that will draw thousands of arrivals from hostile countries like Iran and where, unlike previous tournaments, all the estimated 1.2 million foreign fans will be living side-by-side in one city. in which they urged their nationals to keep a low profile.
“Downplay your Israeli presence and identity for the sake of your personal security,” Lior Haiat, an Israeli diplomat, told fans.