The stands at Doha’s Al Thumama Stadium may have been half empty at the start of the World Cup quarter-final between Morocco and Portugal, but Ramallah’s bars, cafes and streets were already packed.
At a downtown restaurant, Palestinians from all walks of life gathered to watch the first Arab team to qualify for the final stages of the tournament. Above juices, beer and shisha, the atmosphere grew increasingly boisterous as Portugal struggled. Morocco scored just before half-time and the crowd erupted, the men cheering and the women screaming.
The professional Arab commentators did not even pretend to be objective. “May God preserve this score!” said a Palestinian radio host. A beIN Sports reporter called a near-miss Moroccan a “war crime”.
After an already formidable run in which the North African nation became the first Arab team to reach the quarter-finals, the Atlas Lions reached new heights on Saturday, beating one of the best teams in Europe .
In a tournament full of surprise victories for the underdogs, Morocco just delivered one of the biggest upsets yet. Their run to the semi-finals is seen not just as a national victory, but as a victory for the entire Arab world, and especially a boon for 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 instead.
In Ramallah’s Arafat Square, thousands of people held chairs above their heads and danced or handed out sweets as the final whistle sounded, while car horns blared and traffic lights fireworks and gunshots rang out in the night. The scene was repeated in the towns and villages of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“All the Arab world is behind them: it’s very exciting. We are particularly proud of the way they represent Palestine. We’re not even in the World Cup but it’s almost like we’re there, there’s so much support,” said Saha Amir, a 30-something who is watching with her husband, their baby and a group of friends.
The tournament proved that it is difficult to separate sport from politics, even though Fifa bans banners and flags that are “political, offensive and/or discriminatory in nature”.
Support for Iranian protesters and LGBTQ+ rights has been cut short, and there have been no signs of activism drawing attention to the plight of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Yet across Doha, Palestinian flags, banners, armbands and the black-and-white keffiyeh scarf made famous by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are ubiquitous. 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 they still don’t have a state status.)
Morocco’s enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause is in some ways surprising: the country, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, signed a normalization agreement with Israel in 2020 under Trump-brokered agreements known as the name of Abraham Accords.
The statements ended a decades-old taboo in Middle East diplomacy and were seen by Palestinians as a betrayal, as 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 travel to Dubai.
What has become clear to the Israeli establishment and public in this World Cup, however, is that while the region’s kings and sheikhs may have decided to break bread with Israel – to boost their economies , buy military equipment and better fight their common enemy, Iran – for much of the Arab world, the Palestinian cause has not been forgotten.
“The presence of Palestine was strongly felt in every stadium, the flag of Palestine was waved everywhere,” said Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset and a football enthusiast. +972 magazine. “After years of feeling that the Palestinian issue was less of a problem among Arabs, the [Arab] people have made it clear that this issue is the central issue for the entire Arab nation.
Qatar itself has no official relations with Israel, but has allowed the first-ever direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha to bring Israeli and Palestinian fans into the country for the duration of the tournament.
Israelis who have traveled to the small Gulf state, as spectators or journalists, have not been welcomed with open arms. In a first person room for everyday life Yedioth Ahronoth Commenting on their time in Doha, Israeli sports journalists Raz Shechnik and Oz Mualem said the experience was “sobering”.
“I have always been a liberal and open centrist, with an overriding desire for peace. I always thought the problem was with the governments, with the rulers – ours too. But in Qatar, I realized how much hatred is felt by the average person on the street,” Shechnik wrote. The couple eventually started identifying as Ecuadorian to avoid heated clashes with Arab fans.
“We didn’t expect to be received with a warm embrace,” the couple wrote. “We just expected to be treated like journalists covering a sports competition.”
The strong pro-Palestinian narrative in Doha has also drawn fans from the rest of the world.
During a live broadcast, a journalist from the Israeli public broadcaster Kan approached a group of young England fans after their victory over Senegal. “Is he coming home?” He asked.
“Of course it is,” one replied. Grabbing the microphone, he then added, “But most importantly – free Palestine!”