The World Cup Conflict: An Israeli Journalist in Qatar
Moav Vardi, Chief International Correspondent for Israel's Kan News, shares what it's been like covering the World Cup from Qatar for Israeli TV
Moav Vardi gets accosted by a spectator at the World Cup in Qatar.
In late January 2011, I travelled to Cairo to cover the demonstrations protesting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Within a short time, the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian citizens who took to Tahrir Square in the center of the capital would bring about the overthrow of the government and the beginning of the “Arab Spring.”
Alone but for my camera, I walked around the square amongst the protesters. As would any journalist, I tried to talk to them and understand what they were thinking and feeling. At the time, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was over thirty years old. Quite some time. Still, it was clear to me that I could not identify myself as an Israeli in Tahrir Square.
Among other things, the demonstrators were shouting anti-American and anti-Israel slogans. As far as they were concerned, the corrupt Mubarak regime had betrayed the Egyptian public to strike immoral deals with the United States and the “Zionists.” I befriended a young woman who was among the protesters, and after some time I told her that I was Israeli. She warned me, unequivocally, that if the people there knew I was from Israel, my personal safety would be in danger.
Several days later, I was arrested by Egyptian soldiers who learned that I had photographed military forces in the city. They were displeased. Very displeased. As they searched my equipment, they learned very quickly that I was from Israel.
The unambiguous takeaway from every such encounter was that there was absolutely no room for dialogue between us.
At that moment they erupted with a rage that I had never encountered before, anywhere. I saw the hatred in their eyes. My mere presence – as an Israeli, particularly in these circumstances – was a provocation and a humiliation for them. In the hours that passed until I was released, the soldiers did not physically harm or beat me, but they did make sure to give me a push from time to time. I felt that if they could have, they would done more.
What was also clear to me was that the more senior the person confronting me – the higher they were in the military and social hierarchy – the more moderate their attitude towards me was. But as for the rank and file “soldiers”, their loathing towards me as an Israeli was deep and wide.
Since that trip to Cairo, my work as a journalist has taken me to many places where Israelis are not welcome and locals view Israel very negatively. Moreover, throughout the years, I have covered the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts, speaking to Palestinians and many Arab nationals in the region. For the vast majority of the general public in such places, Israel is an aggressive provocateur; an inflictor of injustice on their Palestinian brothers. Battle lines and loyalties are clear.
So when I went to Qatar a few weeks ago to cover the World Cup, I was not anticipating an onslaught of love and affection from the locals, or from the many fans from neighboring Arab countries, towards us Israelis. I was prepared for the fact that when meeting with citizens of Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region, there would be some who would voice their criticism of Israel. And, perhaps, they would do so very loudly.
Given that the largest global sporting event is taking place in an Arab country for the first time ever, the Arab public sees this World Cup as an opportunity to celebrate Arab nationalism and put Arab national identity at the center of the world stage.
And yet, I was surprised by what occurred during our encounters with Arabs from various countries during the two weeks I was in Qatar. The scope and frequency with which we were verbally attacked for being Israelis, and the intensity and depth of the resentment that these people feel towards Israel, far exceeded my expectations.
As soon as we were recognized as Israelis, reactions were not physical, but they were verbal, voluble and violent.
The refrains were strikingly similar: “You’re not welcome here.” “Go away, Israel does not exist, there is only Palestine, from the River to the Sea.” “Zionist killers.” “You should go back to Europe where you came from, Palestine is not yours.”
The unambiguous takeaway from every such encounter was that there was absolutely no room for dialogue between us. These people weren’t interested in what we had to say. In their view, Israel is an illegitimate entity and there is no possibility of recognizing its existence, or its right to exist in the future, under any conditions whatsoever.
I should point out that this wasn’t the case with everyone we met. In my own unscientific assessment, approximately 10 percent of the Arab citizens with whom we engaged said they had no problem talking to us Israelis, nor with Israel’s existence. One such person, from Saudi Arabia, told me quietly, “Maybe you’ll get rid of Iran for us already...”
I’d guesstimate those who verbally attacked us represented another 10 percent of those with whom we interacted. And the remaining 80 percent turned their backs and walked away from us as soon as they realized we were from Israel, as if we were radioactive.
But the 10 percent who formed the vocal antagonists made the experience of being an Israeli journalist in Qatar a most unpleasant one. And this is just two years after the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, were signed. In other words, this outburst of hatred towards Israel in Qatar is occurring at a time when one can allegedly think Israel is being more accepted in the region.
What, then, explains the anti-Israeli tsunami in Doha?
There are about 300,000 such Palestinians living in Qatar, and although they have not lived in the territories of Israel for 75 years, their consciousness and identity are completely Palestinian.
Perhaps naively, I initially thought that the Arab fans at the World Cup would naturally be focused on the celebration of soccer and their desire for their team to win, and less on geopolitics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the reality was the opposite: because it is a competition between nation-states, the World Cup is an event that in its essence encourages overt displays and expression of national identity. And so, given that the largest global sporting event is taking place in an Arab country for the first time ever, the Arab public sees this World Cup as an opportunity to celebrate Arab nationalism and put Arab national identity at the center of the world stage.
Hence the clash with the Israeli presence in Qatar. Qatar is a country that does not recognize Israel, nor are there currently any signs of normalization between the two countries. So when Israeli citizens walk around Qatar like any other welcome guest, it legitimizes Israel as a nation and suggests that Israel is a country like any other. Amongst many Arabs, this arouses all the feelings of anger and resentment they have been harboring towards Israel for many, many years. The manifestations of this hatred are directed not only towards Israeli journalists, but also towards regular Israeli fans, who have no microphones or cameras.
Our most charged encounters in Qatar were with Palestinians. Not Palestinians who travelled to Qatar from the West Bank or Gaza, but Palestinians from the diaspora, refugees of ‘48 and ‘67 and their descendants. There are about 300,000 such Palestinians living in Qatar, and although they have not lived in the territories of Israel for 75 years, their consciousness and identity are completely Palestinian.
The occupation they are opposed to is not the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore the solution is not Israel's withdrawal from these territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state along the ’67 lines
What we Israelis call the 1948 War of Independence, the Palestinians call the Nakba – the catastrophe. Millions of Palestinians who are descendants of these refugees carry the memory of the Nakba as something that is fully alive in their consciousness in 2022. Almost every day, sometimes several times a day, we found ourselves in a situation where Palestinians attacked us verbally, and the words they used always touched on the memory of the Nakba. They talked about how we Israelis stole their property and their homes, and about how they can never return to their homeland as long as we are there.
The concept of two states for two peoples, a territorial compromise, or any diplomatic agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has no relevance for them at all. The occupation they are opposed to is not the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore the solution is not Israel's withdrawal from these territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state along the ’67 lines. For them, the occupation is the very establishment of the State of Israel at their expense – at the expense of their home, their territory, and their homeland. And their encounters with us were not about voicing a political protest, but rather about a very personal and emotional matter for them.
One elderly woman simply started to scream at me in a fury of emotion, pointing to her daughters and her grandchildren and saying, almost in tears, “Where should they be living? Which house can they return to? Do they not deserve to live as citizens in their homeland? You drove us out of Jaffa. I want my home in Jaffa.”
That's exactly how it was when we met with a group of 16- and 17-year-old boys. They also didn’t talk about ending the occupation, or about the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza. They talked about their grandfather's village that was destroyed in 1948 and which today is a Jewish town, and about the fact that they can’t return to Palestine. They therefore have no interest in any compromise involving a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.
“Where was your grandfather born?” one of these boys asked me. “In Poland,” I answered. “Well, then what does this place have anything to do with you? Go back to Poland,” said the boy. “You made up a story that you were here 2000 years ago and now it's suddenly your home, but you don't even look like the local people at all. You're white with European facial features.” I responded to him, of course, but my explanation fell on deaf ears. We could not get to any point of mutual agreement.
I experienced the same kind of hostility from a man who came from Bahrain – one of the Abraham Accord countries – in the Doha market.
We started talking, but when he realized I was from Israel, he firmly told me to leave and that he did not want to exchange one more word with me. When I reminded him that our two countries signed a normalization agreement not long ago, he replied: “Don't be confused – the agreements are between the governments. Our people don't like you at all.” His take on matters stems mainly from the sense of solidarity citizens of Arab countries feel with their Palestinian brothers and the feeling that a great injustice was done to them by Israel.
Ostensibly, these experiences in Qatar serve the arguments of the right-wing camp in Israel. “See?”, they may say, “The Arabs don’t accept Israel's existence within any borders whatsoever, and therefore there’s no need to compromise on the West Bank or take a risk in establishing a Palestinian state. It’s been proven that the conflict is not about that, and the Arabs will continue to fight for the destruction of Israel even if we withdraw to the ‘67 lines.”
For me, this “takeaway” is overly simplistic. The vast majority of the negative reactions we (me and my colleagues) experienced in Qatar happened in the course of interacting with family members of Palestinian refugees.
For them, any suggestion of recognizing Israel engages their deep, inter-generational personal trauma. They spoke of their ancestral villages, often wore Palestinian national symbols or clothing, and were deeply passionate.
While these refugees are highly motivated and aggrieved, it is important to note that they are not the majority among the Palestinian people globally, and comprise a tiny minority in the Arab world.
But anger and hatred of Israelis is felt by many Arabs as well, like the Bahraini man I met in the market. Even though Israel's continued control over approximately three million Palestinians in the West Bank – who are deprived of basic civil rights – is not the root cause of the conflict, it is toxic fuel for this wider hatred.
A western journalist who has been working in the region for 20 years and who has lived in Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah told me, “When the pictures coming out of Israel are of soldiers arresting an elderly Palestinian man, and of an Israeli F16 bombing a residential building in Gaza and killing children, and when millions of Palestinians continue to live under occupation, it’s almost impossible to change public opinion in the Arab world in Israel’s favor.”
Most of the people I met in Qatar who came from Arab countries did not attack us in any way or make negative comments about Israel. They just turned and walked away. They are not motivated by deep personal emotions like many descendants of Palestinian refugees, but for decades they have been taught that Israel is the source of all problems in the region.
In recent years, some Middle Eastern leaders have shifted towards pragmatic rapprochement with Israel. But, as was clear to us in Qatar, it is questionable whether their more recent acceptance of Israel has filtered down to their citizens.
When Israeli citizens walk around Qatar like any other welcome guest, it legitimizes Israel as a nation and suggests that Israel is a country like any other. Amongst many Arabs, this arouses all the feelings of anger and resentment they have been harboring towards Israel for many, many years.
Being in Doha to cover the FIFA World Cup, representing an Israeli media outlet, was intense and disturbing. It was impossible to be there, as an Israeli, and not reckon with the Gordian knot that is our dilemma: many Palestinians will not accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, ever. But. Our continued control over the West Bank and the ongoing disaster in Gaza only compound the hatred, both among Palestinians in exile and those living under Israeli control.
The daily visuals broadcast worldwide of Israeli military forces clashing with civilian populations function as never-ending triggers, stoking embedded negative stereotypes. And fueling hatred.
Would a dramatic shift in Israeli policy in the West Bank actually accomplish anything? I don’t know. But it seems clear that maintaining the status quo will prevent any change in the broad Arab resistance to normalization of Israel and Israelis. Even when they’re just hanging out at a soccer game.