On Tuesday, December 6, Morocco became the first Arab team to ever reach the FIFA World Cup’s Quarterfinals.
After the team defeated Spain in an impressive penalty shoot-out, Moroccan players started their celebration with an act that has become all too familiar to viewers of this year’s tournament: raising the Palestinian flag.
While the Palestinian national team is not part of the World Cup, Palestine has been at the forefront of the tournament ever since fans first landed in Doha. Palestinian flags can be found everywhere and are heavily presented in almost every match, especially those involving an Arab team.
While Qatar never formally normalized ties with Israel, it allowed Israeli citizens and journalists to attend the World Cup through direct flights from Tel Aviv to Doha. The move was seen by many as a sort of soft normalization between the two states.
However, what seems to have taken Israelis by surprise is that contrary to what some authoritarian Arab states have preached, the citizens of the Arab world have not forgotten about Palestine.
On countless occasions, fans from the Arab world have refused to be interviewed by Israeli journalists, sometimes using the opportunity to express their support for Palestine. Even some Iranian, Japanese, and Brazilian fans have also rejected interviews with those reporters. Most notably, fans from countries that recently normalized ties with Israel, namely Morocco, have been the most vocal on their opposition to Zionism. Moroccan fans even chanted their famous “Rajawi Falastini,” a local club’s chant dedicated to Palestine, after their victory against Belgium.
Israel’s Ambitions Fall Flat
For the past two years, Israeli officials, along with their allied states, analysts and observers around the world, tried to spread the narrative that 2020’s Abraham Accords, which saw Israel sign peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and, to a certain extent, Sudan, meant that the overall conflict between Israel and the Arabic-speaking world was over, that Palestinians were isolated from the rest of the Arab world who simply want to move on and make peace.
Despite the heavy push for this narrative, every single opinion poll on the matter of Israel and Palestine in Arab countries showed an overwhelming rejection of normalization with Israel. Even The Washington Institute, a think tank known (and often notorious) for its pro-Israel views, published a report in March 2022 in which every single surveyed country rejected the Abraham Accords. Even the UAE, the country that promoted this deal the most, had only 25 percent of its respondents approve of the accords.
The idea that people in the Arab world would shift their views on Palestine simply because their rulers did is not only wrong but seems to be rooted in outdated orientalist views of the region. In fact, before the Arab Spring, it was not uncommon to hear of the Arab World as a region filled with authoritarian regimes and passive people who will do as they are told. With that in mind, it is unsurprising to have Israeli and Western analysts think Arabs supported Palestine just because their dictatorial governments told them to. After all, alleged support for Palestine has been used by old and new dictators, from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to Syria’s Bashar Al Assad, to justify their iron fist rule and their repression of their respective people. However, despite that, people from the Middle East and North Africa are not ignorant to the reality on the ground in Palestine. They see the occupation, the apartheid, the ethnic cleansing. They relate to the Palestinian cause either due to their history with colonialism, or their current struggle against oppression at home. They chose to support Palestine, and their attachment to the cause cannot be removed by any normalizing regime.
As Palestinian-American Academic Dana El Kurd argues in her article, Gateway to dissent: the role of pro-Palestine activism in opposition to authoritarianism, activism for Palestine in the Arab World has served as an essential vessel to an active political life in largely repressive states. Her claim states that, “pro-Palestine activism consistently generated discussions and demands not only on the issue of Palestine, but on the idea of representative foreign policy, democratic decision-making, and the future of authoritarianism.” This concept makes more sense when we look at the states Israel recently normalized with. None of the UAE, Bahrain or Morocco are full democracies. These states are notorious for jailing citizens, journalists, or activists on charges as small as tweeting. As for Sudan, Israel signed a deal with the military coup authorities, which, according to Sudanese pro-democracy protesters, have been using Israeli weaponry to quell dissent.
Signing peace treaties with dictatorships makes it easier for Israel to impose itself on these countries’ citizens. Such a move would be more difficult to implement in Lebanon or Tunisia, two more democratic countries with citizens largely opposed to the Israeli oppression of Palestinians. In fact, 86 percent of Lebanese respondents in The Washington Institute’s survey oppose the Abraham Accords, with 66 percent holding very negative views towards it.
Israel benefits from supporting Arab dictatorships, and the latter find a way to finally quell one of the last forms of political expression they once allowed: support for Palestine.
Back to the World Cup, it seems that Israeli journalists were either truly oblivious of how Arabs truly see them, or they were purposely chasing those fans expecting these responses to promote the narrative of Israel being surrounded by hostile, “antisemitic” neighbors. What ended up being shown was a reality check for every proponent to normalization. From Tunisian fans holding massive “Free Palestine” banners during Tunisia’s games, to Tunisian and Moroccan players waving Palestinian flags after their games, to Saudi and Qatari fans expressing their loyalty to the cause during their respective teams’ matches, Palestine has taken the spotlight at the 2022 World Cup without even qualifying for the tournament.
Pro-Palestine Expression in Qatar Does Not Exist in a Vacuum
One may say that the level of traction this cause is getting is linked to the World Cup being hosted by an Arab country and, while this is true, it cannot be discussed without the many issues surrounding this year’s global tournament.
As mentioned above, most Arab states are not known for being particularly democratic, and Qatar is no exception. While celebrating the love Palestine is getting at the World Cup, one cannot ignore that this event is the result of the death of countless migrant workers, who struggled under conditions rights groups described as inhumane to build Qatar’s stadiums. Along with that, the country’s infamous Kafala system, a common system across Gulf and some other Arab countries that regulates migrant labor, leaves migrant workers at the mercy of their employers, and has led to exploitation in many cases.
While advocacy for Palestine is allowed in Qatar, other forms of political expression are suppressed. The country also has a poor track record when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, an issue its officials and pundits have become increasingly hostile towards ever since the World Cup started and international concerns over queer rights were raised.
These issues are not exclusive to Qatar, as they can be found across the Gulf and beyond, but they serve as a reminder that political causes ought to be intersectional. Palestine deserves massive platforms that were not built on the bodies of migrant workers who simply wanted to make a living. You do not liberate one while oppressing another.
When a single video of Iranian fans welcoming an Israeli journalist surfaced online, pro-Israel figures were quick to claim that some sort of “new Middle East” was born, ignoring the massive amount of videos of fans, including Iranians, expressing their love for Palestine.
Whether pundits want to admit it or not, the reality on the ground is that the view of people from the Middle East and North Africa, remain strongly linked to the Palestinian fight for freedom. Freedom in the Arab World cannot come without freedom for Palestine, and Palestine’s freedom is intrinsically linked to the liberation of the MENA’s populations from authoritarianism, corruption, exploitation and modern slavery.