DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It was unfamiliar territory for the Israeli journalist. While wandering through the rustic outdoor market in Doha before the start of the World Cup, he targeted a man from Qatar in his traditional headdress and white billowing robe and asked for an interview.
“Which station?” asked the Qatari. The journalist replied that he was from Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.
The Qatari was stunned. “Where?”
“Israel,” the journalist repeated. A split second later, the interview was over.
The exchange bounced around social media, reflecting the latest political flashpoint during the Arab world’s first football World Cup — never mind that neither Israeli nor Palestinian national teams are taking part in the tournament.
Controversy followed Israelis and Palestinians pouring into Doha, proving how deep-rooted and emotional their violent age-old conflict still remains, including Israel’s unrestricted occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state.
Palestinians shared footage of the Doha meeting between the Qatari man and the Israeli journalist, along with other clips of Palestinians and Qataris angrily confronting Israeli reporters on live TV. They took it as proof that while Qatar has allowed Israelis to fly directly to Doha and receive consular support for the first time in history, the conservative Muslim emirate has no intention of allying itself with Israel.
Channel 13’s 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 Kill Babies!” shouted some Arab fans as they rammed into him during a broadcast this week.
Qatari media have since published a number of such videos with the caption: “No to normalization.” Officials in Qatar, with its history of public support for Palestinians, have insisted the temporary opening to Israelis was purely to meet FIFA hosting requirements – not a move towards normalizing ties like neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in 2020. Qatar has warned a spike in violence in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip would derail the scheme.
Nevertheless, thousands of Israeli football fans are expected to flock to Doha for the World Cup, diplomats say, including some with 10 direct flights scheduled over the next month.
Many Israeli fans marvel at the intriguing novelty of being in a country that has no diplomatic ties with Israel. Security-conscious citizens notice how safe they feel.
“My friends and family thought it could be dangerous, but it’s fine,” said Eli Agami, an aviation executive who lives near Tel Aviv. “I’m not going to tell people, but I don’t think anyone cares if you’re Israeli or Jewish. Everyone just cares about the game.”
Six Israeli diplomats have settled into a travel agency in Doha, ready to respond to major and minor crises. To mitigate potential problems, the State Department has launched a campaign to urge Israelis to keep a low profile.
“We want to avoid any 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 icy towards Israel now engulfing Qatar . “We want to remind (Israelis) … you don’t have to put your fingers in other people’s eyes.”
Israelis have felt at home among the glittering skyscrapers of Doha. Qatar’s first kosher kitchen, set up near the airport, supplies hotels and fan zones with the classic Jewish challah bread with eggs and sandwiches with olives and hummus. They plan to cook different foods for the Jewish Sabbath that begins Friday at sundown, with all ingredients in compliance with kosher dietary laws.
“We’ve received tons of questions and requests,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, who oversees the effort.
Israel’s main channels are allowed to broadcast from Doha, allowing Israeli viewers to receive continuous coverage of the matches. But unlike other major foreign networks based centrally in downtown Doha, the Israelis roam without a formal studio.
Shorrer said that while interactions with Qatari officials were perfectly pleasant, the streets were a different story. He said he advises Israeli fans to hide their Jewish skullcaps and leave their Star of David behind so as not to provoke hostility. When a mobile phone salesman noticed his friend’s settings in Hebrew, he exploded with 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 a positive thing,” he said. “It’s sad, it’s unpleasant. People abused and threatened us.”
Palestinian fans from around the Arab world — including descendants of those who fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war over the creation of Israel — took to the streets of Doha this week draped in Palestinian flags. Some also wore Palestinian bracelets.
A group of young Palestinians living in Doha chanted, “Liberate Palestine!” as they marched through Doha’s historic Souq Waqif market on Sunday.
“We want everyone to know about the occupation and what people are experiencing in Palestine so that more people support us,” said 26-year-old demonstrator Sarah Shadid.
She laughed awkwardly when asked about the influx of Israeli fans.
“I’m a little upset,” she said, adding that she was confident their presence was not Qatar’s choice. Doha mediates between Israel and the militant Hamas group and sends cash for the salaries of officials in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
When FIFA announced the unprecedented direct flights from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv to Doha, Qatari authorities promised that the travel arrangement would extend to Palestinians in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli-led regime for 15 years. Egyptian blockade. years since Hamas took power there.
But five days into the tournament, it remained unclear how the officials would carry out that premise.
A senior Israeli diplomat, Lior Haiat, said any Palestinian fans wishing to leave Israel’s airport must obtain permission from Israel’s security services to leave and return — an often exhausting and unpredictable process. “It takes a while,” he admitted.
Imad Qaraqra, spokesman for the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs, said he had not heard of Palestinians seeking Israeli permission to leave from 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 border crossing.
Palestinian fans who made the long journey said their participation in the world’s biggest sporting event served a political purpose.
“I’m here to remind you that our country is still occupied in 2022,” said Moawya Maher, a 31-year-old businessman from Hebron, a particularly tense city in the West Bank. He danced in concert at the FIFA Fan Festival, wearing a Palestinian flag as a cape. “I suppose it’s a miserable situation. But I’m also proud.”