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The Moroccan football team holding the Palestine flag
After their World Cup victory against Spain, the Moroccan football team raise a Palestine flag.Twitter

Palestine is the biggest winner at this year’s World Cup

Despite the western media doing its best to ignore it, the tournament has seen a tidal wave of Palestine solidarity – writer Hamza Ali Shah explains why this is significant

The biggest winners of this World Cup haven’t even had a team competing: the Palestinians. In a tournament characterised by unforeseeable developments, one of the most consistent themes has been the multipronged Palestinian solidarity that has unfolded, particularly among fans of the Arab nations.

In their matches against Australia and Belgium respectively, Tunisian and Moroccan fans each unfurled a huge ‘free Palestine’ flag in the 48th minute, in reference to the 1948 Nakba – the period that saw the mass exodus of at least 750,000 Palestinian refugees in the run-up to the formation of the State of Israel.

During Tunisia’s game against France, a Tunisian fan ran onto the pitch, waving the Palestinian flag, cartwheeling in the process. The crowd erupted into chants of “Palestine” as he was dragged away by security. In a different match in the Al-Bayt stadium, fans emphatically chanted “With spirit and blood, we will redeem you, O Palestine” (in Arabic). That this occurred on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People felt richly poetic. Earlier this week, when Morocco knocked the former champions Spain out of the tournament, they posed for a celebratory team photo with the Palestine flag at the heart of it. 

Outside of the stadiums, the theme remained the same. A Saudi Arabian vendor selling flags of different countries went viral after he was spotted giving customers an extra Palestinian flag as a free gift with any purchase. A categorical and uplifting message has been conveyed throughout: Palestine can never be removed from the hearts of the people. 

It would be valid to suggest this groundswell of support for Palestine has come against the run of play. The Palestinian cause was once a driving force in the policy direction of the Arab world, reaching its zenith in the 1960s when nations like Syria, Jordan and Egypt went to war against Israel with the anti-imperial objective of regional Arab unity and Palestinian liberation. However, the nail in the coffin for those aspirations came in 1967, when Israel triumphed in the war, seizing and occupying all the remaining Palestinian territories. It has since consolidated its domination at the expense of the Palestinians, with Arab leaders typically observing with indifference.

What looked like a decisive death blow to the hopes of Palestinian solidarity came in 2020, with the signing of the Abraham Accords – a series of joint normalisation statements between Israel and Arab countries, that would pave the way for increased business and diplomatic relations. The implication was that Israel could afford to maintain its apartheid rule and still enjoy warm relations with the Arab world, because they, too, were happy to wilfully neglect the Palestinians. The evidence from this year’s World Cup suggests many fans have given that idea the red card. 

Recent polls indicate that the Arab public widely disapproves of the Abraham Accords and the prospect of normalising ties with Israel as long as Palestinians remain oppressed. But if there were still any lingering doubts, the experience of Israeli journalists in Qatar could be seen as the decisive confirmation that the treatment of Palestinians will dictate the trajectory of normalisation.

Israeli journalists broadcasting live have been interrupted by rallies of people chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and waving Palestinian flags. Meanwhile, an Egyptian man went viral after he leaned into the camera and said, live on Israeli television, “Viva Palestine.” Fans refusing to speak to Israeli channels has also been a common occurrence. One particular exchange included Moroccan fans posing for the camera, before swiftly walking off upon realising it would be for an Israeli media outlet. The reporter’s response was one of shock, repeatedly citing that a peace agreement had been signed by Morocco, thereby assuming the Moroccan people themselves endorsed the notion that Israel’s crimes could be whitewashed and forgotten.

Israeli journalists often seem bewildered as to why they are being boycotted. “I really changed my mind here in Qatar,” an Israeli reporter told the New York Times. “We are not human beings for them. They want to wipe us out from the map.” 

While Israeli journalists speculate about being wiped out, that is in fact the lived reality for Palestinians under Israeli rule. Next week marks six months since Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was assassinated by Israeli forces. While her death attracted more coverage than is usual – thanks in part to her being an American citizen – it was regrettably no exception: since 2000, 50 Palestinian journalists have been murdered. If media representatives of an apartheid state wish to understand why the reception has been so frosty, they’d be better off looking closer to home.

Crucially the show of Palestinian solidarity has not been confined only to fans of Arab nations. Brazilian fans also proudly hoisted the Palestine flag and Uruguay supporters have been spotted donning the ‘kufiyah’ – the symbolic black-and-white scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance –  and wearing pro-Palestinian shirts, with one fan insisting “the Palestinian people deserve freedom”. 

One clip that went viral on social media featured an English fan who, during an interview with an Arabic channel, confessed that his Arabic wasn’t strong, before shouting “free Palestine” in almost faultless Arabic and breaking into a “Free! Free! Free!” chant.

Some Palestinians living in Qatar have referred to the World Cup as a “golden opportunity to introduce our cause”. The memo has been received enthusiastically. And yet, in the face of such an unavoidable talking point, there’s been a striking – if unsurprising – radio silence from the western media. Notoriously, large sections of the British media have engaged in the practice of deceptive framing and hostile coverage when it comes to covering Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And if Palestine rises in the political agenda, the British media is quick to disparage it. When a Labour Party candidate made reference to Palestine during a by-election campaign in 2021, the liberal-leaning New Statesman magazine referred to it as “unhinged” and an “obsession”. Do people suffering from decades of cruelty deserve support? Apparently not, if they’re Palestinian. It’s characteristic of this bias that, while human rights have been a hot topic throughout the World Cup, and fans across the world are being commanded to speak out against injustice, the outpouring of Palestinian solidarity has largely been ignored. 

As it maintains its rule, Israel has spent years – with unconditional assistance from the Western world – cracking down and suppressing Palestinian solidarity. We are under no illusions that the outpouring of support at the World Cup will cause the occupation to grind to a halt or prevent Palestinians from being killed. As a British Palestinian, I often see the misery of my family who are living under occupation get swept under the carpet by the international community. As a result, it’s hard not to exist in a perpetual state of despondency. But seeing the Palestinian flag hoisted so proudly during the World Cup has been heartening, because it provides new grounds for hope. It shows that this is by no means a solo struggle, and that the commitment to Palestinian liberation remains as unshakable as ever.

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