DOHA, Qatar (AP) – It was uncharted territory for the Israeli journalist. Wandering through the rustic outdoor market in Doha before the start of the World Cup, he met a Qatari man in his traditional headdress and white robe and asked for an interview.
“Which channel?” asked the Qatari. The journalist replied that he was from Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.
The Qatari was stunned. “Where?”
“Israel,” repeated the journalist. A split second later, the interview was over.
The exchange was splashed around social media, reflecting the latest political flashpoint in the first World Cup in the Arab world – not to mention that the national teams of Israel and Palestine are not competing in the tournament.
Controversy has followed Israelis and Palestinians pouring into Doha, revealing just how deep and emotional their century-old violent conflict is.including Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state.
Palestinians shared photos of the Doha encounter between the Qatari man and the Israeli journalist, along with other clips of Palestinians and Qataris angrily challenging Israeli reporters live on television. They saw it as a test, even though Qatar 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 cozying up to Israel.
Israel’s Channel 13 sports reporter Tal Shorrer said he had been pushed, insulted and accosted by Palestinians and other Arab fans during his live coverage of the tournament.
“You’re killing babies!” shouted a few Arab fans as they rushed into him during this week’s broadcast.
Meanwhile Qatari media have published some such videos with the caption: “No to normalization.” Officials in Qatar, with their history of public support for Palestinians, have insisted that the temporary opening to Israelis only complies with FIFA’s hosting requirements – not a move to normalize relations as has been done by neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. in 2020.. Qatar has warned that a sudden increase in violence in the West Bank or Gaza Strip would stop the arrangement.
Nevertheless, thousands of Israeli soccer fans are expected to descend on Doha for the World Cup, diplomats said, including some on 10 direct flights planned over the next month.
Many fans of Israel marvel at the interesting novelty of being in a country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Safety-minded citizens report how safe they feel.
“My friends and family thought it might be dangerous but it’s OK,” said Eli Agami, an aviation executive who lives near Tel Aviv. “I don’t go around telling people but I think nobody cares if you’re Israeli or Jewish. Everyone just cares about the game.”
Six Israeli diplomats have set up shop in a travel agency office in Doha, ready to respond to emergencies big and small. In order to limit potential problems, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a campaign encouraging Israelis to lie low.
“We want to avoid any friction with other supporters and local authorities,” said Alon Lavie, a member of the delegation, noting legions of supporters from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries either hostile or cold towards Israel which is now flooding Qatar. “We want to remind (Israelis)… there is no need to poke your fingers in other people’s eyes.”
Israelis have made themselves at home among the glittering skyscrapers of Doha. Qatar’s first kosher kitchen established near the airport, supplying hotels and fan zones with the classic eegi Jewish challah bread and olive and hummus sandwiches. They plan to cook another meal for the Jewish Sabbath that begins Friday at sundown, with all ingredients complying with kosher dietary laws.
“We’ve received many, many questions and requests,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, who oversees the effort.
The main Israeli channels have been able to broadcast from Doha, giving Israeli viewers continuous coverage of the games. But unlike other major foreign networks that are centrally located in downtown Doha, the Israelis roam around without a formal studio.
Shorrer said that while interactions with Qatari officials had been perfectly pleasant, the streets were a different story. He said he advises supporters of Israel to hide their Jewish kippas and remove their Stars of David so as not to incite hostility. When a mobile phone salesman noticed his friend’s posts in Hebrew, he exploded with anger, screaming at the Israelis to get out of Doha.
“I was so excited to come in with an Israeli passport, thinking it was going to be something positive,” he said. “It’s sad, it’s unpleasant. People were cursing us and threatening us.”
Palestinian supporters from across the Arab world – including descendants of those who fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war over the creation of Israel – draped through the streets of Doha this week in Palestinian flags. Some also wore Palestinian armbands.
A group of young Palestinians living in Doha chanted, “Free Palestine!” while marching 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 the 26-year-old marcher, Sarah Shadid.
She laughed awkwardly when asked about the influx of Israeli supporters.
“I’m a little upset,” she said, adding that she was sure Qatar was not chosen by their presence. Doha mediates between Israel and the militant group Hamas and sends cash for the salaries of civil servants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
When FIFA announced the unprecedented direct flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport to Doha, Qatari authorities promised that the travel arrangement would also apply to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which have been under the crushing Israeli-Egyptian blockade for 15. years, ever since Hamas seized control there.
But five days into the tournament, it remained unclear how officials would uphold that premise.
Senior Israeli diplomat Lior Haiat said all Palestinian supporters trying to fly out of an Israeli airport must get Israeli security approval to leave and return – an often gruesome and unpredictable process. “It takes time,” he acknowledged.
Imad Qaraqra, spokesman for the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs, said he had not heard of any Palestinians asking for Israel’s permission to leave from Ben Gurion. Palestinians from the West Bank traveled to Qatar this week from a Jordanian airport, while Palestinians in Gaza left for Egypt through the enclave’s Rafah border crossing.
Palestinian fans who made the long journey said they felt their presence at the world’s biggest sporting event served a political purpose.
“I’m here to remind me that our land is still occupied in 2022,” said Moawya Maher, a 31-year-old businessman from Hebron, an extremely tense West Bank city. He was dancing at a concert at the FIFA Fan Festival, wearing the Palestinian flag as a cape. “It’s a sorry state of affairs I suppose. But I’m also proud.”