Australia/Israel Review


“Palestine” as World Cup distraction?

Dec 14, 2022 | Seth Frantzman

Qatar has cracked down on all political expression at the World Cup, as well as displays of flags not belonging to participating teams – with one exception. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations and Palestinian flags are welcome (Image: Twitter)
Qatar has cracked down on all political expression at the World Cup, as well as displays of flags not belonging to participating teams – with one exception. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations and Palestinian flags are welcome (Image: Twitter)

Over the first week of December, there were increasing reports of anti-Israel sentiment among some people at the World Cup in Doha, as well as some incidents where people waved Palestinian flags.

The recent trend of reports about anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian views suddenly appearing at the World Cup seems conveniently linked to Qatar’s desire to distract attention from its own human rights abuses and critique over its crackdown on Iranian protesters and on gay rights symbols.

Let’s take a look back at the trajectory here.

When the competition began, there was a lot of buzz about various issues fans confronted. For instance, as far back as 2020, reports had said rainbow flags would be permitted at the World Cup. However, since the sporting events began, there has been a crackdown on any support for gay rights.

The Associated Press reported in November that “in the days ahead of the opening games, the captains of seven European teams were prohibited from wearing multi-coloured ‘One Love’ armbands during World Cup matches in support of LGBTQ rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.”

Another issue in Qatar was the concern over workers’ rights. The Guardian reported last year that 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded to the small kingdom. Qatar later admitted that several hundred workers had died in construction related to the event.

Qatar has tried to deflect and shift criticism. It quickly moved away from the idea of being inclusive, seeking to crack down not only on rainbow armbands but also going after Iranian protesters who dared oppose the Iranian regime.

Then it began its messaging campaign against the West. Its supporters put out statements about how Westerners were being hypocritical for criticising Qatar, and that the West should first deal with its own colonial past. Then the narrative began that it was “Islamophobic” or “anti-Arab” to criticise Qatar. The West was accused of being “Eurocentric” and “Orientalist”.

Qatar’s team was quickly knocked out of the Cup, losing to the Netherlands at the end of November. “Qatar becomes the first World Cup host to lose all three group matches, the last one 2-0 to the Dutch,” reports said. 

For a country like Qatar, which pays for positive media coverage to enhance its image around the world, the unprecedented criticism around the World Cup was embarrassing.

From banning alcohol in stadiums, and gay rights, migrant workers’ rights, and its poor showing on the field, it was time for Doha to go on the offensive. Accusing the West of hypocrisy and racism was only one part of the Qatari agenda. Anti-German cartoons and other slogans have appeared in recent days, also designed to mock Germany for critiquing the West Asian country.

 

It appears that the growing anti-Israel sentiment in Qatar may have been a manifestation of Doha’s need to distract attention from other issues. Why would Palestinian flags suddenly make an appearance even as police in the country appear to be cracking down on Iranian dissidents who dare show off flags or any kind of protest slogan? It appears that officials have given the go-ahead and that this is a phenomenon.

In the beginning, Israeli journalists appeared to be welcomed, and then suddenly reports of “Arab fans confronting Israeli media” became a talking point. CNN says Israeli journalists had a “chilly reception”. Al Jazeera, which is backed by Qatar, even has a photo essay called “Palestinian flags fly high at World Cup.” How come the flags didn’t fly high in mid-November when the games were set to begin?

Does it seem well-timed that suddenly stories emerge about the need to “confront” Israeli journalists? Qatar is an authoritarian regime that closely controls media and every aspect of society. Clearly, nothing happens in Qatar without authorities knowing about it. That’s why pressure was put on Iranian dissidents.

While some of the pro-Palestinian voices are surely authentic, it seems that the timing of the supposedly anti-Israel antics of a few people is well-placed to move the media spotlight from abuses of gay rights and migrant rights, to discussing Israel. This is a well-known pattern in the region. Attacks on Jews and “anti-Zionist” rhetoric have often been used by extremists and authoritarian regimes for the last 100 years.

The sudden “chilly” reception for Israeli journalists may not be something that just happened. There is no chilly reception for Russian state media, even though Russia is engaged in a brutal war against Ukrainians. No other issue in the world seems to motivate a chilly reception.

For instance, even though Qatar has hosted extremists who are anti-India, there are no chilly receptions for Indian journalists. For example, Indian media reported in November that a fugitive preacher wanted for hate speech was in Qatar giving religious lectures. Yet his presence hasn’t led to major media reports of any anti-India incidents during the sporting events.

This is why the singling out of Israel seems to be, at least partially, choreographed. 

There is no doubt that many people in the region are pro-Palestinian. However, there is also a quiet attempt in Qatar to try to contrast itself with other Gulf states such as Bahrain and the UAE, both of which hosted Israel’s President this week. Doha wants to have this Janus-face of appearing moderate and welcoming and inclusive, while also stoking and fanning anti-Israel views.

This Janus face has existed for many years. During the Gulf crisis, when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states cut ties with Qatar, Doha worked to burnish its image, hosting several Jewish leaders and even hinting that it might one day normalise ties with Israel.

Now that story has faded. Today, Iranian media is celebrating the supposed “hatred of Zionists” that is on display in Qatar. Perhaps it’s not so much “hatred” as the need to move the story from Doha’s track record to make it seem like Qatar is doing something for the Palestinians.

Seth J. Frantzman is Senior Middle East Correspondent and Middle East affairs analyst at the Jerusalem Post. © Jerusalem Post, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 

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