“God save this result!” Palestinians beat Arab team in World Cup semi-finals | World Cup 2022
The stands at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha may have been half-empty when World Cup the quarter-final between Morocco and Portugal had started, but the bars, cafes and streets of Ramallah were already full.
At a downtown restaurant, Palestinians from all walks of life gathered to watch the first Arab team to reach the final stages of the tournament. Over fruit juice, beer and shisha, the atmosphere grew louder as Portugal struggled. Morocco scored just before half-time and the crowd erupted, the men cheering and the women clapping.
Professional Arab commentators did not even pretend to be objective. “May God preserve this result!” said a Palestinian radio host. A beIN Sports journalist called one Morocco narrowly missing a “war crime”.
After an already great run that saw the North African nation reach the quarter-finals, the Atlas Lions reached new heights on Saturday by defeating another of Europe’s best teams.
In a tournament full of surprising underdog victories, Morocco have just pulled off one of the biggest upsets yet. Their trip to the semi-finals is seen not only as a national victory, but as a victory for Africa and the entire Arab world, and in particular a boon to the Palestinians. As after other matches, instead of posing for photos with their own red flag with a five-pointed green star, the Atlas Lions unfurled a Palestinian flag, using their time on the world stage to highlight the Palestinian cause.
In Ramallah’s Arafat Square, thousands of people danced or passed out sweets as the final whistle blew, as car horns blared and fireworks and celebratory gunfire rang out into the night. The scene was repeated in towns and villages in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The whole Arab world is behind them: it’s very exciting. We are particularly proud of how they represent Palestine. We’re not even at the World Cup, but it’s almost like we are, there’s so much support,” said Saha Amir, 30, who was watching with her husband, their baby and a group of friends.
The tournament proved that it is difficult to separate sport from politics, although FIFA bans banners and flags that are “political, offensive and/or discriminatory in nature”.
Support for Iranian protesters and LGBTQ+ rights were shut down and there was no sign of activism to draw attention to the plight of The Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Yet in Doha, Palestinian flags, banners, ribbons and the black and white keffiyeh scarf made famous by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are everywhere. Fans from Qatar, Lebanon, Algeria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia cheered on a team that didn’t even qualify (Palestine is a member of FIFA, though it doesn’t yet have statehood.)
Morocco’s enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause is in some ways surprising: the country, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, signed a normalization deal with Israel in 2020 under Trump-brokered deals known as Agreements Abraham.
The declarations ended a decade-long taboo in Middle East diplomacy and were seen by the Palestinians as a betrayal since the Arab League’s stated position is that there can be no peace with Israel until Palestinian statehood is achieved. Over the next two years, Israel celebrated its tentative new friendships in the region, and many Israeli tourists enjoyed the novelty of trips to Dubai.
What has become clear to both the Israeli establishment and the public at this World Cup, however, is that while the kings and sheikhs of the region may have decided to pander to Israel – to boost their economies, buy military equipment and better fight their common enemy, Iran – for much of the Arab world, the Palestinian struggle still matters.
“The presence of Palestine was strongly felt in every stadium, the flag of Palestine was flying everywhere,” said Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset and an avid soccer fan. +972 magazine. “After years of feeling that the Palestinian issue was less of an issue among Arabs, [Arab] people have made it clear that this issue is central to the entire Arab nation.
Qatar itself has no official relationship with Israel, but allowed the first-ever direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha to bring Israeli and Palestinian fans into the country during the tournament.
Israelis who have traveled to the tiny Gulf state, either as spectators or reporters, have not been welcomed with open arms. In a first-person piece for every day Yedioth Ahronoth of their time in Doha, Israeli sports journalists Raz Shechnik and Oz Mualem said the experience was “sobering”.
“I have always been a liberal and an open centrist, with an overarching desire for peace. I have always thought that the problem is with the governments, with the rulers – and ours. But in Qatar, I realized how much hatred the average person on the street feels,” Shechnik writes. The two eventually began identifying themselves as Ecuadorians to avoid heated confrontations with Arab supporters.
“We didn’t expect to be greeted with a warm hug,” the couple wrote. “We just expected to be treated like journalists covering a sporting event.”
The strong pro-Palestinian narrative in Doha also swept away fans from the rest of the world.
During a live broadcast, a reporter for Israel’s public television, Khan, addressed a group of young England fans after their win over Senegal. “Is she coming home?” he asked.
“Of course it is,” one of them replied. Seizing the microphone, he added: “But more importantly, free Palestine!”
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