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At the World Cup, the Arab world rallies to Palestinian cause

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RAYYAN, Qatar — In the aftermath of Morocco’s sensational victory over Spain, the triumphant Moroccan squad posed for a picture with a flag. It wasn’t their own green star-on-crimson banner, nor the flag of Algeria, Tunisia or Lebanon, all of which flapped in the stands in a reflection of the Pan-Arab solidarity that has coursed through the first World Cup in the Middle East. Instead, the Moroccans waved the flag of Palestine, an explicit echo of support for a cause that has suffused the whole tournament. At the match on Tuesday evening, Palestinian emblems were everywhere, draped across people’s shoulders, on scarves, on T-shirts.

Outside the stadium beforehand, I met Mona Allaoui, a resident of Rabat, the Moroccan capital, who wore a Palestinian kaffiyeh over her Moroccan national team shirt. “I don’t care about politics,” she said, by which she meant the political normalization agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, signed between her nation’s leaders and Israel in 2020. “I support the Palestinians because I’m a human being and they are our brothers and sisters.”

At a tournament bombarded from all fronts by political concerns, the cause of Palestine is a kind of leitmotif. While authorities have from time to time blocked those sporting LGBTQ rainbows or anti-Iran regime iconography, the Palestinian flag has been ubiquitous at the World Cup’s stadiums, no matter which teams are playing. Banners calling for a “Free Palestine” were raised in the stands of at least one game, while a protester at a match involving Tunisia invaded the pitch waving a Palestinian flag. During games, fans from Arab nations have chanted for Palestinian rights and against recent killings of Palestinians by Israeli security forces. They did so again Tuesday.

Interactions between Israeli journalists — invited to Qatar for the World Cup despite the absence of formal relations between both countries — and various fans they came across in Doha, Qatar, underscored the prevalence of the issue. Videos that proliferated on social media showed bemused or startled Israeli reporters being berated by passersby. In one encounter with Moroccan fans who walk away shouting “Palestine,” Raz Shechnik of Israel’s Yediot Aharonot beseeched them: “But you signed peace!”

The Abraham Accords, forged by the Trump administration, paved the way for the normalization of ties between Israel and four Arab states — the three monarchies of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, as well as Sudan. It was hailed as a major regional breakthrough and a mark of a shifting political order in the Middle East, with certain Arab powers losing interest in the entrenched struggle over Palestinian dispossession and more animated by other priorities, from countering Iran to boosting their economies. This week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called on the royals of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in what were billed as landmark visits.

The World Cup, though, has showed how small the vision of that supposed peace is. In recent months, there has been plenty of chatter in Washington about how Israeli officials and business executives have become a common sight in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and even in Riyadh (the Saudis have yet to normalize relations with Israel, though there’s a depth of connections). But what goes often unsaid in the U.S. and Israeli conversation about these normalization deals is the extent to which they only reflect top-level elite interests in the region.

Israelis in Qatar reckoned with that reality. “There are a lot of attempts by many people here, from all around the Arab world, to come out against us because we represent normalization,” Ohad Hemo, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 12, told his network. “Israelis’ wish came true, we signed peace agreements with four Arab states, but there are also the people, and many of them don’t like our presence here.”

Some Israeli commentators saw the backlash as evidence of enduring anti-Israeli, even antisemitic sentiment in the region. “This isn’t a knock on the Abraham Accords, or even on peace with Jordan and Egypt,” wrote Lahav Harkov of the Jerusalem Post. “They are all significant and all brought positive results for Israel and for those countries. But it’s also a wake-up call about the limitations of those agreements.”

Recent polling shows that overwhelming majorities of ordinary citizens in many Arab countries, including those that participated in the Abraham Accords, disapprove of formalizing ties with Israel. “There is clearly not much love in the Arab world for Israel,” wrote Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based risk consultancy that focuses on the region. “The decades of humiliation, resentment, and anger which many Arabs feel toward Israel cannot simply vanish with the signing of such normalization agreements.”

Still key for millions of people in the Arab world, their governments aside, is the political condition of Palestinians, millions of whom live lives circumscribed by Israel’s security interests, shorn of the same rights afforded to the Israelis around them. For years, most Arab governments conditioned normalization with Israel on the advent of a separate Palestinian state. But the process to create that state has effectively collapsed, while Israel’s new far-right government contains numerous politicians who oppose any scenarios in which Palestinian statehood could ever be viable.

“Ordinary Arabs are against this occupation and see it as inhuman and unacceptable,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of history and contemporary politics at Qatar University.

Zweiri said the political tenor of the tournament in Qatar has offered a clear message not just to the United States and Israel, but to Arab governments that also seem intent on obscuring the political priorities of Palestinians. The presence of Palestinian flags at stadiums was “not organized by states, but something genuine from within the people themselves,” he said. “The World Cup is about ordinary people, it’s about middle-class people. It’s not about the elite.”

“They can talk about normalization about 100 years, but they cannot impose it,” Zweiri said.

That’s a view recognized by some in Israel. “After the Abraham Accords were signed with several Arab countries in 2020, rightist pundits claimed that the Palestinians’ fate no longer interests other Arabs,” wrote Uzi Baram in left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “They didn’t bother to read the article in the agreement stating that their fulfillment requires establishing a Palestinian state. As for the symbiosis between the Palestinians and other Arab nations, no further proof seems needed following the World Cup in Qatar.”

Aladdin Awwad, 42, a Palestinian cybersecurity specialist who works in Doha, was at Morocco’s victory over Spain. His brother had draped a Palestinian flag over the Morocco jersey he was wearing.

“It’s great to see all these Arab nationalities support our cause and show the West that Palestine will not die,” Awwad told me. “We are not here to create problems. We are not against peace. But we exist and we are here.”

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