Arab Fans Confront Israeli Reporters Covering World Cup in Qatar

When the Gulf emirate of Qatar agreed to allow direct flights from Israel so soccer fans could attend the World Cup, some took it as another sign of warming ties between Israel and the Arab world.

Instead, Israeli journalists — the most visible symbols of their country at the tournament — have been berated or ignored by local residents and Arab visitors at times, a reminder that despite the 2020 diplomatic agreements with three Arab governments, many ordinary citizens in the region still oppose closer relations with Israel.

The tournament has offered a rare moment of Arab solidarity, with fans from different countries cheering on each other’s teams and wearing armbands in support of the Palestinian cause. On Wednesday, a grinning man wearing a Tunisia shirt interrupted a game by running onto the field with a Palestinian flag.

At the same time, Arab fans have rejected interviews with Israeli reporters and gotten into arguments about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Raz Shechnik, a reporter for Israel’s Yedioth Ahronot newspaper reporting from Qatar, posted on Twitter a series of interactions with Arab fans who refused to speak with him.

“We’re all human,” Mr. Shechnik said to one young man, after he declined an interview. “You’re not human,” the man shot back, adding: “There is nothing called Israel. It’s only Palestine, and you just took the land from them.”

Debating another fan dressed in the team T-shirt for Morocco — one of the three Arab countries that recently normalized relations with Israel — the journalist argued: “But you signed a peace agreement!”

The fan shouted back “Palestine, Palestine!” as he disappeared into the distance.

“Arab people, even those who are citizens of countries that normalized relations with Israel, still have their fair share of grievances with Israel, and that is not going anywhere soon,” said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher who studies his country’s policy toward Israel.

Nearly 4,000 Israelis applied for access to the World Cup, according to Qatari authorities. But there has been little indication of the same kind of antipathy being directed at the Israeli fans, who are less conspicuous than the journalists with their cameras and microphones.

Soccer fans checking in last month at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport for a flight to the Qatari capital of Doha to attend the World Cup.Credit…Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Still, many of the interactions were captured on camera, ranging from quiet refusals of interview requests to loud disruptions of Israeli broadcasts by people chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and waving Palestinian flags.

One Egyptian initially agreed to an interview and patiently waited while an Israeli reporter introduced him as a new friend. Then the Egyptian man leaned into the camera and said, live on Israeli television, “Viva Palestine.”

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

The Abraham Accords, as the diplomatic agreements in 2020 were called, did not bring a fundamental change, said Ohad Hemo, a veteran Israeli television reporter who experienced a backlash in Qatar.

“The people of the Middle East — not the regimes — do not really accept Israel,” he said in a phone interview, adding that this dynamic will continue until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

The 2020 accords allowed for the formation of new business relationships and high-level military ties between Israel and the three main countries involved — Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — and boosted Israeli tourism to Morocco and the U.A.E., where Israelis generally reported a warm welcome.

The deals highlighted how shared fears of a nuclear Iran — as well as the opportunities created by greater economic and security ties between Israel and the Arab world — had become a more pressing priority for certain Arab leaders than an immediate resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But for the Arab public, polls suggest these government-led shifts have not been accompanied by grass roots support for Israel, particularly in countries like Qatar, which has not fully normalized its relationship with Israel though it has had some limited trade and diplomatic contacts over the years.

Instead, according to scholars from the region, the agreements reflect the economic and security interests of a handful of Arab rulers and the elites who support them.

“The World Cup serves as a space for spontaneous interactions with Israeli journalists, which provided the most honest answer regarding the centrality of the Palestinian cause,” said Maryam AlHajri, a Qatari sociologist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Ms. AlHajri, a member of an independent collective called QAYON, for Qatari Youth Opposed to Normalization, said the governments that have normalized relations with Israel have suppressed dissent against those accords.

“It goes without saying that there can never be peace without equitable justice.”

Israeli reporters who experienced the backlash said many of the hostile comments appeared to come from members of the Palestinian diaspora — many of whom are descended from those who fled or were expelled from their homes during the wars surrounding the creation of Israel.

On Wednesday, a man interrupted a game by running onto the field with a Palestinian flag.Credit…Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A fluent Arabic speaker, Mr. Hemo said he had been depressed by the experience even though he understood the reaction.

“For them, this is a chance to raise their voice against Israel,” said Mr. Hemo, who has covered Palestinian affairs for nearly two decades. “They didn’t harm us, which is important to say.”

Other Israeli reporters said they felt more offended.

Having long supported a peace deal with the Palestinians, Mr. Shechnik said his experiences in Qatar had led him to conclude that Palestinians wanted to destroy Israel rather than make peace with it.

“I really changed my mind here in Qatar,” he said. “We are not human beings for them. They want to wipe us out from the map.”

Some Palestinians said such Israeli reactions felt ignorant of the daily challenges facing Palestinians under occupation and blockade.

The Israeli response to the backlash “only proves the Israelis’ blindness and lack of self-awareness of the injustices of the occupation,” Sheren Falah Saab, an Arab reporter at the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote on social media.

Others accused Israelis of hypocrisy.

“Jewish journalists complain about the hostile treatment they receive in Qatar,” Mohammad Magadli, an Arab Israeli broadcaster, wrote on Twitter. “I suggest that you accompany an Arab journalist here in Israel, not abroad, for just one day.”

A fan wearing a Palestinian flag at a live broadcast in Doha last month.Credit…Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Jerusalem last week, a crowd of Israelis chanted “Death to Arabs” and disrupted a broadcast by an Arabic-speaking news outlet at the site of a bomb attack that killed two Israelis which Israeli security officials blamed on Palestinian attackers.

Qatar, along with its Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, have so far refrained from establishing formal diplomatic ties with Israel, conditioning it on the establishment of a Palestinian state.

When an agreement to temporarily allow flights from Israel was reached last month, a Qatari official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues said the opening was purely to comply with hosting requirements from FIFA, the world’s governing body for soccer.

“The World Cup and the Israeli reporting from Qatar illustrates how limited the Abraham Accords turned out to be, as it did not address core issues that many care about,” Mr. Alghashian said.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.

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