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Morocco Has Become The World Cup Flag Bearer For A Nation: Palestine

The World Cup in Qatar has been political on many fronts. Right now, with the event in an Arab country for the first time and Morocco as the first Arab team to make the quarterfinals, the Palestinian question is now very much on the agenda.

photo of two supporters of morocco with moroccan and palestinian flags in gaza

Cheering for Morocco (and Palestine) in Gaza

Ali Hamad/APA Images via ZUMA
Paolo Valenti

When Morocco beat powerhouse Spain at Qatar's Al Rayyan stadium on Tuesday, it was a small bit of soccer history: the first time Morocco had qualified for the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

But the victory traveled well beyond the field, and beyond Morocco. Joy and celebration erupted across the Middle East and North Africa, where people of different nationalities gathered to celebrate that Morocco was also the first ever Arab team to ever qualify for the quarterfinals.

And those who were at the stadium or watching the post-game celebrations on the field will have noticed a peculiar detail: waving in the hands of the victorious players was not the Moroccan flag, but the Palestinian one.

Hassan Ored, a writer and historian, told the Beirut-based pan-Arab news outlet Daraj, that the tournament has revealed itself as a driver of regional identity, where the Palestinian cause is expressed through sport: “What is remarkable, given the organization of the World Cup in Qatar, is the predominance of the Arab dimension," he said. "It was evident through the raising of Palestinian flags by the fans and players, in an expression that their victories are not only for Morocco; Rather, it is for the Arab world.”

Double standards

It was not the first time that its black, red, white, and green colors appeared during this World Cup. The week before, a Tunisia supporter carrying a Palestinian flag had run onto the pitch during the match between the North-African team and France.

Aside from these sensational incidents, displays of support for Palestine have been constant since the beginning of this tournament – and not only from Arab fans. Last week, a video of an England supporter went viral; he had the St George's cross drawn on his face and a Palestinian flag in his hand shouting “Free Palestine” in Arabic during a TV interview outside the stadium.

The same motto was echoed in another popular video where an Uruguayan fan is was asked by a reporter why she is wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional black-and-white checkered scarf — a symbol of the Palestinian cause. Not everyone approved. On social media, several users have denounced the Qatari organizers’ double standards for allowing pro-Palestine displays while discouraging pro-LGBTQ+ symbols and Iranian anti-regime protests.

What are Qatar's relations with Israel?

It is not surprising that Qatar is proving to be a welcoming environment for pro-Palestine supporters. While many Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel – most recently, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – and recent reports suggest that even Saudi Arabia is on the same track, the Qatari leadership keeps repeating that it will not do so until the Palestinian issue is resolved on the basis of the two-State solution envisaged by the Oslo accords of 1993-1995.

This was not always the case: in 1996, Qatar became the first Gulf State to establish commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel and to open an Israeli trade office on its soil. The office was shut down only four years later and the relations between the two countries became much more tense since the Gaza war of 2008-2009.

Today, Doha is among the most vocal in denouncing the abuses committed by the Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, including through Qatar-owned news network Al-Jazeera. Just a few days ago, the government-funded channelannounced the submission of a formal request to the International Criminal Court to investigate on the death of its Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed last May while covering an Israeli raid in the village of Jenin, West Bank.

Palestinians watch the broadcast of the 2022 World Cup match between Saudi Arabia and Poland in Gaza City

Mahmoud Issa/Quds Net News/ZUMA

Amplifying rifts

A sign of Qatar’s approach was seen some weeks before the beginning of the World Cup, when the organizers loudlyannounced the opening of the first direct flights between Doha and Tel-Aviv to bring both Israeli and Palestinian supporters to the stadiums. On that occasion, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said: “Football has the power to bring people together. It transcends all boundaries, crosses all borders.”

Well, not all of them. The last three weeks of the tournament have shown how the sport can also bring out and amplify existing rifts and barriers. Two in particular have emerged strongly.

The first, not so surprising, is the one between Israel and Arab countries. Supporters interrupt Israeli journalists outside the stadiums or refuse to speak with them.

This brings us to the second and certainly more surprising rift – at least for those looking from the outside: the one between Arab countries’ leadership and public sentiment.

A recent poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, cited in a Middle East Eyearticle by Feras Abu Helal, shows that around 80% of the people interviewed in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia had a negative view of the Abraham Accords that prompted a normalization of diplomatic between Israel and respectively the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

In this tweet, Lebanese fans refuse to be interviewed by an Israeli journalist. The Israeli journalist speaks to them in Lebanese Arabic dialect saying “I am from Israel, my brothers;” the Lebanese football supporters walk away, saying “There is no Israel, there is only Palestine” “Why did you come here?” “How did you get here?” “There is no Israel” and shouting “Palestine” a few times. The journalist responds: “Israel exists, my friends”.

Pan-Arab sentiment, Israeli doubts

This leadership vs. people divide also applies to intra-Arab relations. As Yasmeen Sehran wrote, the celebrations for the victory of Morocco over Spain showed that the pan-Arab sentiment is still alive among people in North Africa and the Middle East, despite the strong and frequent tensions among the governments of their respective countries.

The perfect example was offered by the Algerian people celebrating their “Moroccan brothers”’ success, despite the decade-long dispute over Western Sahara which led to the interruption of diplomatic ties in August 2021.

No less telling was the point of view of Michal Aharoni, an Israeli journalist quoted in al Jazeera, who described what she called a state of “Palestinian supremacy” during the World Cup. In a message sent to the Israeli community, Aharoni wrote, "Here we are discovering that there is a vibrant Palestinian people, and to realize that, the Israeli media had to fly to Qatar to remember this fact."

*Renate Mattar contributed to this report

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