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Nov-24 07:00 first published at 07:00 AM


DOHA, Qatar — For the Israeli journalist, it was uncharted territory. He approached a Qatari man in his traditional headdress and white flowing robe in Doha’s rustic outdoor marketplace before the start of the World Cup and asked for an interview. “Which channel?” inquired the Qatari. The journalist responded that he worked for Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster. The Qatari was taken aback. “Where?” “Israel,” the journalist said again. The interview was over in a split second. The exchange spread on social media, reflecting the latest political squabble at the Arab World Cup, despite the fact that neither the Israeli nor Palestinian national teams are competing. Controversy has greeted the influx of Israelis and Palestinians into Doha, revealing how entrenched and emotive their violent century-old conflict remains, including Israel’s open-ended occupation of Palestinian-claimed territory for a future state. Palestinians shared video of the confrontation between the Qatari man and the Israeli journalist in Doha, as well as other clips of Palestinians and Qataris angrily confronting Israeli reporters on live television. They saw it as proof that, while Qatar has allowed Israelis to fly directly to Doha and receive consular assistance for the first time in history, the conservative Muslim emirate has no plans to warm up to Israel. During his live reports from the tournament, Israeli Channel 13 sports reporter Tal Shorrer said he was shoved, insulted, and accosted by Palestinians and other Arab fans. “You’re killing babies!” yelled a few Arab fans as they rammed into him during a recent broadcast. Meanwhile, Qatari media has published some of these videos with the caption “No to normalization.” Qatari officials, who have a history of public support for Palestinians, have insisted that the temporary opening to Israelis was solely to meet FIFA hosting requirements — not as a step toward normalizing relations, as neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates did in 2020. A surge in violence in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, Qatar has warned, would derail the agreement. Thousands of Israeli soccer fans are expected to arrive in Doha for the World Cup, according to diplomats, including some on 10 direct flights scheduled over the next month. Many Israeli fans are fascinated by the unusual novelty of being in a country with no diplomatic relations with Israel. Citizens who are concerned about their safety express their satisfaction. “My friends and family thought it might be dangerous, but it’s fine,” said Eli Agami, a Tel Aviv-area aviation executive. “I don’t go around telling people, but I don’t think it matters whether you’re Israeli or Jewish.” Everyone is only concerned with the game.” Six Israeli diplomats have set up shop in Doha at a travel agency, ready to respond to crises big and small. To avoid problems, the Foreign Ministry has launched a campaign urging Israelis to remain silent. “We want to avoid any friction with other fans and local authorities,” said Alon Lavie, a member of the delegation, referring to the legions of fans from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries that are either hostile or frosty toward Israel that are currently flooding Qatar. “We want to remind (Israelis) that you don’t need to poke your fingers in the eyes of others.” Israelis have established themselves among Doha’s glittering skyscrapers. Qatar’s first kosher kitchen opened near the airport, supplying the classic eggy Jewish challah bread and olive and hummus sandwiches to hotels and fan zones. They intend to prepare additional food for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown, with all ingredients adhering to kosher dietary laws. “We’ve had a lot of questions and requests,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, who is in charge of the project. Israel’s main channels have been granted permission to broadcast from Doha, providing Israeli viewers with live coverage of the matches. However, unlike other major foreign networks based in downtown Doha, the Israelis operate without a formal studio. While interactions with Qatari officials had been pleasant, the streets were a different story, according to Shorrer. He advised Israeli fans to hide their Jewish kippas and remove their Stars of David to avoid provoking hostility. When a cellphone salesman noticed his friend’s Hebrew settings, he erupted in rage, yelling at the Israeli to leave Doha. “I was so excited to come in with an Israeli passport, thinking it would be something good,” he explained. “It’s sad and unpleasant.” People cursed and threatened us.” Palestinian supporters from across the Arab world, including descendants of those who fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 war over the creation of Israel, paraded through Doha this week, draped in Palestinian flags. Some wore Palestinian armbands as well. On Sunday, a group of young Palestinians in Doha marched through the historic Souq Waqif market, chanting “Free Palestine!” “We want everyone to know about the occupation and what people are going through in Palestine so that more people will support us,” said marcher Sarah Shadid, 26. When asked about the influx of Israeli fans, she laughed awkwardly. “I’m a little upset,” she admitted, adding that her presence was not chosen by Qatar. Doha acts as a go-between for Israel and the Hamas militant group, sending money to pay civil servants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. When FIFA announced the unprecedented direct flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport to Doha, Qatari officials promised that the travel arrangement would also apply to Palestinians in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took control there 15 years ago. However, five days into the tournament, it was unclear how officials would put that premise into action. According to Lior Haiat, a senior Israeli diplomat, all Palestinian fans wishing to fly out of Israel’s airport must obtain Israeli security approval to leave and return — a time-consuming and unpredictable process. “It takes time,” he admitted. According to Imad Qaraqra, spokesman for the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs, no Palestinians have requested permission to leave Ben Gurion. This week, Palestinians from the West Bank flew to Qatar from Jordan’s airport, while Gazans crossed into Egypt through the enclave’s Rafah border crossing. Palestinian fans who traveled a long distance to attend the world’s largest sporting event said their attendance served a political purpose. “I’m here to remind people that our land will still be occupied in 2022,” said Moawya Maher, a 31-year-old businessman from Hebron, a particularly tense West Bank city. He was dancing at a FIFA Fan Festival concert while wearing a Palestinian flag as a cape. “I suppose it’s a bad situation.” But I’m also proud of myself.”

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