Palestine’s World Cup triumph

20th December 2022

Omar Karmi, a Palestinian-British journalist, and Tamir Sorek, an expert on football in Palestine-Israel, discuss the Palestinian phenomenon at the 2022 World Cup, the reactions worldwide, and the game and players in Israel-Palestine.




Omar Karmi:

Good afternoon, everyone. Let me please first thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and hopefully be a bit more illuminating and all the World Cup related guff that we’ve been assaulted with over the past few weeks. Second, what a final. I just think I had to say that, for all the self-righteous bluster about the hosting of Qatar, I think that this was probably the best World Cup final I’ve seen. And I remember 1982, which was brilliant. So well done to Argentina and commiserations to France.

Of course, we know who the real winner is, which is Palestine. Or maybe not. I have to give you a little spoiler alert here. I’m not somebody who believes that this has been a huge victory for Palestine, that the fact that the Palestinian flag was waved everywhere has been some sort of a bloody nose for Israel. I don’t think it was. I understand why we would want it to be. And I think there are good reasons for this. But ultimately, while it has given us a warm glow inside as Palestinians, and has provided a tiny reminder that actually Palestine as an issue is still very much alive amongst Arab peoples, I’m afraid the World Cup will change little for the better, at least where it matters.

And certainly it did nothing for the Palestinian national team, which is made up of players from 1967 occupied territory, these are barely able to meet to train because of Israeli traveling restrictions, they often have to play their home games in Jordan because of Israeli travel restrictions. And they rarely have a full squad, even when allowed to travel, partly thanks to trigger happy soldiers or the ‘round up the usual suspects approach’ to occupation.

Nevertheless, some of the images, especially the picture of a victorious Morocco team donning a huge Palestinian flag as they pose for photos after beating Portugal seemed like an important message, particularly to Palestinians actually, which is this you – have not been forgotten. And I think some of the more superlative reactions to those scenes came from exactly the sense among many Palestinians, that that’s exactly what’s happened, that Palestine has been forgotten, and even other Arabs don’t care much.

To see the flag waved repeatedly at the most important sporting event on the planet has been a salve for many, prompting a sense of relief that people still care. Of course, this sense of being shunted aside, going unheard as long been the Palestinian condition. But there is little doubt that it has reached a peak lately, particularly after the Abraham Accords. So to get a bit political about it, when those accords were first signed, Palestinians feared, and still fear, that this could start some sort of a domino effect among Arab countries to sign similar agreements that really do nothing for Palestinians, and serve only to allow Israel to further normalise and consolidate this occupation.

And we know the accord signed by the UAE, Bahrain and yes, Morocco, have had absolutely no positive effect on Palestinian lives whatsoever. Quite the opposite. We now have the most right-wing Israeli coalition to take power. And there is some competition for that title. Let’s face it. And even with unabashed and outspoken racists in office, we had nothing from these Arab countries who had otherwise promised to use their newfound good offices with Israel to help Palestinians.

So yes, while Palestinians have long been disabused of the idea that their Arab brethren would someday rise to their rescue, the hope was always that fear of public backlash, at least, would restrain Arab countries from going the other way.

So the Abraham Accords came and went and are now a new reality. But the World Cup did seem to show us a slightly different sides of the Arab peoples who have little say in the doings of their rulers. So this is where the World Cup was welcomed, to see and hear so many supporters from so many countries where the Palestinian flag and demand Palestinian freedom, especially I have to say to is Israeli journalists was genuinely lovely and quite funny in parts. And it was comforting to think at least fellow Arabs have not forgotten Palestine, that whatever the maneuvering of their rulers, there remains love and support for Palestine and Palestinians among the ordinary folks of the region. So the show of public support has been a shot in the arm for Palestinians, much needed, no doubt. What will it prevent, say Saudi Arabia, should Riyadh be so inclined from signing another accord with Israel? Will it cause religious leaders to think twice about the way they treat Palestinians? Will it improve conditions for people on the ground? I don’t think so.

If there’s any lasting positive effect it may be that Israelis themselves might come to realise they remain unwelcome in the region until the Palestine issue reaches a just settlement. The thing is, do Israelis care? I don’t think they do. This is an Israeli public that consistently votes anti-peace and pro-settlement parties into power, that has now gone further and given Jewish supremacist mandate. It’s a frightening, frightening situation in Israel, if you asked me, certainly it is for any Palestinian who lives under Israeli rule in occupied territory, and it shows no sign of ending. The next couple of years, as far as I can tell, are going to be really scary.

And there’s also no sense that the show of solidarity in Qatar in any way filtered back to Western audiences. Much of the reaction to Morocco’s Palestine exploits off the field has been on social media or on Arab media. Certainly, no traditional mainstream media here in the UK even picked up on this story of Arab solidarity with Palestine, none that I saw anyway. It may just be as US coverage of Israel is becoming more critical, the UK media seems to have stuck their collective heads in the sand, fingers in ears, eyes tightly shot, just ignoring Palestine as much as possible. This could be the Corbyn effect, the fear of being called anti-Semite, fatigue with a story that doesn’t change. Or maybe it’s just poor journalism. Who knows? It’s probably a bit of everything.

Until Palestine becomes story again, there’s little to gain from so-called West silence, it suits those were complicit with Israel’s many transgressions of international law. Let’s face it, the less written about Palestine, the better for all Israel’s friends. Every Western politician must know the contradiction between their espoused principles and their support for Israel. Best not shine a light on that.

And that opportunity which was in Qatar, to shine a light on popular Arab support for Palestine, was far too easily passed up by the journalists there who were otherwise very keen, and quite rightly so, to report on labour rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights. So for all of the positivity that we saw on social media, amongst Palestine, Palestinians and their supporters and all the funny clips we saw of Israeli journalists being rebuffed, I don’t think in terms of PR, in terms of putting Palestine back on the agenda, the World Cup really did that much. It did do something for Palestinians. It’s very difficult to measure in any sensible way. I do think that there is a very deep sense of neglect amongst Palestinians, that they’re being forgotten, and their cause has been forgotten and ignored. And it’s a sense that it’s partly as a result of Israel taking full advantage. The fact that nobody’s protesting the fact that Palestinian seem more isolated than ever, and of course, the Abraham Accords. So it was a shot in the arm for Palestinians. It’s important to see that solidarity with Palestine remains amongst Arab peoples, if nowhere else. And it was important to see the Palestinian flag waved regardless.

Everything is political and sport is no different. We can go back and look at the 1980 Olympic Games and the boycott of South African apartheid sports people, banning now of Russian sports. So politics and sports mix, whatever FIFA and other sports buddies want to say. There is a reason why science in pubs in Ireland and bars in the US, and politics and sports as topics. They appeal to our tribalism. But, while I understand the reaction, the positive reaction the World Cup has had, I think it’ll have very little actual effect. I will say this, though, the World Cup that will give me hope is the one in which I’m sorry to say Israel is banned. If that ever happens, it will only happen because the world has finally said enough. And that is a sign of progress, and probably the only sign of progress. It’s not to underplay the importance of solidarity. Just like a team on a pitch gains extra energy and extra will to fight from the supporters in the stands, a show of support in Qatar is important to Palestinians to keep morale up. Perhaps not as big a victory as some would make out. Thank you.

Tamir Sorek:

Good afternoon everyone. I would like to continue, in the place where Omar stopped it. Omar provided a very pessimistic view about the potential influence of the World Cup on the Palestinian case. And I think I share this pessimistic estimate. And I also agree that it has been very important days for Palestinians to feel that they are not being forgotten, that their case is still in the mind of many millions of people. And I would like to take a broader look on the question whether football and sports in general can have a political effect, in the case of Palestine, Israel, and maybe more broadly.

Historians of South Africa, historians of sports, do make the point that there was a contribution of the sports boycott into the general sentiment of pressure on the public in South Africa and indirectly on politicians. Obviously, not the only reason. But it was an element that was important. And I agree that if, at a certain point, FIFA will decide to suspend Israel, it might have an effect on the Israeli public. And I think if it will happen, it is not because the world finally will come to the conclusion that enough is enough, because there have been enough reasons to do it before. If it will happen, it means that the political balance of power in the international sphere of change has changed to allow that. If it will happen, it might have an effect.

Talking about the current situation in Israel, that is very keep voting for our pro-occupation. Yeah, it is true, but I know about surveys from South Africa in 1989, where only 4% of the white population supported a racially blind regime in South Africa and it suddenly changed. So there are many reasons to be pessimistic. But if I want to look for some glimpses of lights, I’m trying to look at what happened in the past and maybe it could happen also through football.

So this is one aspect of potential influence of football. But I want to look at other aspects. There there has been so much focus on the issue of Palestinian flag in Qatar. And I would like to provide some historical background for that. If you go and try to find out about the history of the Palestinian Football Association, you go to Wikipedia or to other official websites, even Palestinian, you might say that the Palestinian Football Federation was established in 1928. Well, this is officially true, but the association that was built in 1928 was a Zionist Association, and only in order to satisfy some rules of FIFA, they invited an Arab Palestinian representative to the inaugurating meeting. But practically it was a Zionist Football Association. The international games that Palestine participated at the time, at least those recognised by FIFA, were of that Zionist Association without any participation of the Arab players in the country. And there were some attempts of the Arab Football Association that was established in Palestine to change that. They appealed to FIFA, there were some diplomatic moves to change it with the support of neighboring Arab countries. But before they were able to gain any success in this effort, the War of 1947/48 erupted. And after that, it became irrelevant with the destruction of policy in society, including almost all of the football infrastructure that was established in the Arab cities in Palestine during the Mandate Period.

What happened after that is that inside Israel, Palestinians remained. And there were about 160,000 in 1948. They were under a severe and very strict military rule that did not allow them to develop their own football infrastructure. But on the other end, at a certain point, the Israeli authorities concluded that they cannot prevent the popularity of football, but they can contain it. And they did allow football teams of Palestinians in Israel, as long as they are part of the Israeli Football Association, and even encouraged it. And for the Palestinian young generations, especially the men among them, football was a way to compete physically against Jewish Israelis, and sometimes win. It was connected to this nexus of masculinity, national pride. And they were attracted to that. But at the same time, in the imagination of many, it was connected to the state, because the state provided the new organisational infrastructure for playing football for Palestinians. The independent clubs were shut down very quickly.

And in the long term, football has become a way of preserving the political status quo. I conducted some surveys at the turn of the century, 1999/2000, when you could clearly see that Arab men who do go to football matches, go to the stadiums, in high frequency tend to be more accepting the political status quo, they were more likely to vote for Zionist candidates in elections, a little bit more in strange of their Palestinian identity, there was a sense that this field is not a field of Palestinian political protest. Certainly not.

However, 15 years ago, we see a change. Gradually, since 2008, we see Palestinian flags in the stadiums. I am talking now about inside pre-67 Israel. I attended many, many games. I haven’t seen a Palestinian flag until that date. And it was not before because it was illegal, especially after the signing of the Oslo Process. The Palestinian flag was seen in public in Israel in political demonstrations of the Palestinian Israeli days of national commemoration and Land Day, certainly the commemoration of the Nakba, that became more public and more massive since 1998. You could see Palestinian flags, but not in the stadiums. In a way, we didn’t see it because in this unwritten agreement between Jewish fans and Arab Palestinian fans, this is a form of protest and defiance. And since the Palestinian fans did not want to estrange the Jewish fans or the establishment, they did not bring it. They saw the stadiums as a sphere of integration and an opportunity, maybe with a hope to be accepted as equal citizens in the state of Israel.

But the change happened, partly because it didn’t function. It didn’t help to promote equality. It remained a bubble, it remained what I called an integrative anklet. So especially after the collapse of the Oslo Process, and the Second Intifada, gradually, this approach of using the stadiums as a field of rapprochement with the Jewish public was gradually abandoned. And this enabled the bringing of the Palestinian national narrative, Palestinian national symbols into the stadiums.

And there were also other processes related to that, there is a global phenomenon of politicisation of sports that we see also in the United States and in Europe over the past decade. There is also the influence of social media, there is the influence of the political role of football fans in Egypt during the Arab Spring. There are other elements, but certainly this disillusionment from the ability to use football as a channel for integration was certainly influential.

And so we see more and more Palestinian flags in the stadiums, more and more Palestinian national protests in this stadiums. And we see also something that is relatively recent that Palestinian stars in the Israeli league started to express them themselves politically. And this is new. I did follow this phenomenon. It did not happen in the past, Palestinian stars in the Israeli national team were really very, very careful. Well, anyway, they faced very racist slurs. But in general, the approach of the fans and the association and other players was very inclusive, and the players started to keep it as such, they were really very careful.

Recently, Palestinian football stars start to express themselves on social media. And this created a backlash because the Association, other players, Jewish fans, they did not know how to deal with that, when, for example, Manas de Bourgh, was a star in the Israeli national team during May 2021, posted a post on his social media with criticism against the Israeli policy in Jerusalem, the reaction was very harsh. He was also booed later by fans during the games of the Israeli national team. And he decided. because he felt that he did not gain the support of his teammates in the team, to leave the team.

We live in a moment of change here, because just several years ago, you had, in the same time, the highest number of Palestinian players in the Israeli national anthem, and it represents their professional success. In the last roster, we had only one, this is a sharp decline. There are also some other reasons which are circumstantial, but we cannot disconnect this from the political events. The Israeli national team that was in the past, very inclusive toward Palestinians, and it serves the interests of the Israeli  liberal media for self-flattering or that we are a country of self-opportunities, and we serve the interests of the Palestinian football players and their fans. So this shared interest was not enough to contain the tensions that are underground and taking place outside of the stadiums. This is in the background of this decline of participation of Palestinians in the Israeli national team.

And now, we’re coming to Qatar. The Palestinian national flag, that was in the Israeli context so threatening for a Jewish Israelis, suddenly appeared in Qatar. And it is important to make a pause here and say that, in both Israeli and Palestinian national imagination, popularly, the conflict is considered as a zero sum game, as a total game. When one has success, has a victory, it means invisibility, it means a threat for the other side. And this is how it is perceived by the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, among them, football fans.

So I think the threat that you could see by the reaction of Israeli journalists that Omar just mentioned, is especially relevant for Jews of Moroccan background, because, in general, there has been lots of sympathy and support for the Moroccan national team among Jews of a Moroccan background. I am saying this based on anecdotes of conversations with acquaintances and friends, there has been lots of support and sympathy. But this sympathy for many became a conflict, once the Moroccan team waved the Palestinian national flag. I do not say that eliminated the support, but it creates a tension, a dilemma for many people. And I think it exposed the dilemma and tensions in the identity of Moroccan Jews in Israel, that in general, even though they have suffered from discrimination, and marginalization, they were certainly integrated, at least at the narrative level, into the Zionist story, and adopted, in many ways, the historical narrative of the Ashkenazi movement that created the Zionist project and the State of Israel. And at the same time, they have these nostalgic sentiments in sympathy for Morocco. So this is where we saw this tension that everything came together, the importance of football for both Palestinians and Israelis, the power of symbols, especially the Palestinian national flag, and its very, very charged meanings for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Futher Reading

Football’s coming home…for the Palestinians! How the World Cup put Palestine in the international spotlight.

This entry was posted in Misc. Bookmark the permalink.