DOHA, Qatar (AP) – It was new territory for the Israeli journalist. As he strolled through Doha’s rustic outdoor marketplace ahead of the start of the World Cup, he focused on a Qatari man in his traditional headgear and white, flowing robe, requesting an interview.
“What channel?” asked the Katari. The journalist replied that he was from Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.
The Qatari was stunned. “Where?”
“Israel,” repeated the journalist. Fractions of a second later the conversation was over.
The exchange ricocheted on social media, reflecting the recent political flash at the first-ever World Cup in the Arab world — regardless of the fact that neither Israeli nor Palestinian national teams are taking part in the tournament.
Controversy followed the Israelis and Palestinians who poured into Doha, showing how entrenched and emotional their violent, centuries-old conflict remainsincluding Israel’s indefinite occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
Palestinians shared footage of the Doha encounter between the Qatari man and the Israeli journalist, along with other clips of Palestinians and Qataris angrily confronting Israeli reporters on live TV. They saw it as evidence that Qatar allowed the Israelis to fly direct to Doha and receive consular assistance For the first time in history, the conservative Muslim emirate has no intention of siding with Israel.
Channel 13 Israeli sports reporter Tal Shorrer said he was pushed, insulted and accosted by Palestinians and other Arab fans during his live coverage of the tournament.
“You’re killing babies!” A couple of Arab fans yelled as they rammed him during a broadcast this week.
Qatari media, meanwhile, have published a number of such videos with the caption “No to normalization”. Officials in Qatar, with their history of public support for the Palestinians, have insisted the temporary opening to Israelis was simply to meet FIFA host requirements – not a move to normalize ties like neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have been taking in the past year 2020 did. Qatar has warned that a surge in violence in the occupied West Bank or Gaza would derail the deal.
Nonetheless, thousands of Israeli football fans are expected to descend on Doha for the World Cup, diplomats say, including some on 10 direct flights scheduled next month.
Many Israeli fans marvel at the fascinating novelty of being in a country that has no diplomatic ties with Israel. Safety-conscious citizens notice how safe they feel.
“My friends and family thought it might be dangerous, but it’s okay,” said Eli Agami, an aviation executive who lives near Tel Aviv. “I don’t go around telling people, but I don’t think anyone cares if you’re Israeli or Jewish. Everyone just cares about the game.”
Six Israeli diplomats have set up shop in a Doha travel agency to respond to crises large and small. To limit potential problems, the State Department has launched a campaign urging Israelis to keep a low profile.
“We want to avoid friction with other fans and local authorities,” said Alon Lavie, a member of the delegation, citing legions of fans from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries who are either hostile or chilly towards Israel, now Qatar flooded. “We want to remind[Israelis]… You don’t have to put your fingers in other people’s eyes.”
The Israelis have made themselves comfortable among the glittering skyscrapers of Doha. Qatar’s first kosher kitchen was built near the airport, supplying hotels and fan zones with the classic Jewish challah bread with eggs and olive and hummus sandwiches. They plan to prepare different foods for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday, with all ingredients conforming to kosher dietary laws.
“We have received many, many questions and requests,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, who is overseeing the effort.
Israel’s main channels were allowed to broadcast from Doha to provide Israeli viewers with continuous coverage of the Games. But unlike other major foreign broadcasters, which are centrally based in downtown Doha, the Israelis roam without a formal studio.
Shorrer said that while interactions with Qatari officials have been perfectly pleasant, the streets are a different story. He said he advises Israeli fans to hide their Jewish yarmulkes and get rid of their Stars of David so as not to provoke hostility. When a cell phone salesman noticed his friend’s Hebrew settings, he exploded in anger and yelled at the Israeli to leave Doha.
“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.”
Palestinian supporters from across the Arab world – including descendants of those who fled or were driven from their homes in the war to establish Israel in 1948 – paraded the streets of Doha this week, draped in Palestinian flags. Some also wore Palestinian armbands.
A group of young Palestinians living in Doha shouted “Liberate Palestine!” as he marched through Doha’s historic Souq Waqif market on Sunday.
“We want everyone to know about the occupation and the experiences of the people of Palestine so that more people will support us,” said 26-year-old protester Sarah Shadid.
She laughed sheepishly when asked about the influx of Israeli fans.
“I’m a bit upset,” she said, adding that she was certain her presence wasn’t Qatar’s decision. Doha mediates between Israel and the militant group Hamas, sending cash for the salaries of officials in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
When FIFA announced the unprecedented direct flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport to Doha, Qatari authorities promised the travel arrangement would also apply to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade for 15 years Years since Hamas took control there.
But five days into the tournament, it remained unclear how officials would implement this premise.
A senior Israeli diplomat, Lior Haiat, said that any Palestinian fans wishing to exit the Israeli airport must obtain Israeli security clearance to leave and return – an often grueling and unpredictable process. “It’s going to take a while,” he admitted.
Imad Qaraqra, spokesman for the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs, said he had never heard of Palestinians asking for Israeli permission to leave Ben Gurion. Palestinians from the West Bank traveled to Qatar from Jordan’s airport this week, while Palestinians in Gaza entered Egypt through the enclave’s Rafah crossing.
Palestinian fans who made the long journey said they felt their participation in the world’s biggest sporting event served a political purpose.
“I’m here to remind you that in 2022 our country is still occupied,” said Moawya Maher, a 31-year-old businessman from Hebron, a particularly tense West Bank city. He danced at a concert at the FIFA Fan Festival and wore a Palestinian flag as a cape. “I suppose it’s a miserable situation. But I’m also proud.”