Palestinians attending the World Cup were able to unite in Qatar despite living just miles apart back home.
The 2022 World Cup, held in the Middle East for the first time in the tournament’s history, allowed football fans from around the globe to come together on a mass scale, bridging geographical and cultural gaps in a beautiful display of diversity.
The month-long tournament served as a meeting point in which already-diverse Qatar was transformed even further into a melting pot of cultures. However, for Palestinians who have struggled with decades-long restrictions imposed by Israel, being in the Gulf state meant a lot more.
Just days ahead of the World Cup, Qatari authorities announced a deal that would allow Palestinians fly into the Gulf state, effectively lifting an Israeli ban on travel for the natives. Once here, Palestinians said they were able to move around different parts of Qatar freely, without worrying about the daily mobility restrictions imposed by the Zionist state back home.
For Jerusalem-based filmmaker Adnan Barq, the tournament in Doha was his chance to hop onto a flight to another country for the first time ever. Unlike in Palestine, roads in Qatar are not disturbed by an illegal apartheid wall, multiple military checkpoints, and intimidating armed soldiers interrogating Palestinians.
“I personally experienced something that I’m sure I will never experience again,” Barq told Doha News.
Alaa Sous, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian content creator, was also in town for the mega event, and it was there where she met her friend for the first time – Gaza-based vlogger, Ahmed Hijazi.
“I felt great joy when I saw him in Qatar after the war that happened in Gaza and that he turned out to be well, and at the same time sad that we are not able to see each other in Palestine because of the siege or the military checkpoints in Palestine,” Sous said.
Hijazi’s home city Gaza is known widely as the world’s largest open air prison. The vlogger is among some two million people in Gaza that have been living under an illegal siege imposed by Israel since 2007, cutting them off from basic resources and isolating them from the rest of Palestine, as well as the world.
In Qatar, he said meetings with other Palestinians were emotional.
“It was a meeting full of emotions, full of imagination, full of joyful feelings, weeping and feelings of longing” for those from other cities in Palestine, he told Doha News.
For the first time, Hijazi was able to meet Palestinians from Acre, Nazareth, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Jenin and hear more about those areas, despite being just miles away from his home.
“I swear, my soul yearns for everything that was said,” he added.
Travelling out of Gaza is a near-enough impossible feat for locals. Even patients suffering from cancer struggle to access treatment and live under the mercy of Israeli permits that allow them to step out of the besieged city to access medical services in other areas, such as the West Bank.
“Travel is torture for Palestinians leaving the Gaza Strip to any place in the world, starting from applying for travel permits that could take weeks or sometimes months, passing through the crossing, and the arrival at the Cairo International Airport,” Hijazi said.
“With this World Cup, I learned what a fully sovereign state means. I knew what freedom means, media, openness, mixing, cultures, meeting our Arab brothers,” Hijazi said.
But the travel issues do not end at the borders of Gaza – mobility remains a challenge for Palestinians in other areas of the country, from Jerusalem, the West Bank, to other occupied 1948 territories.
East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank are separated by a 700 kilometers wall, widely known as the Apartheid Wall—ruled as illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. As a result, Palestinians are segregated, with permits required to cross checkpoints.
Israel has placed at least 106 military checkpoints that severely restrict Palestinian movement across the country. Workers who travel back and forth often end up spending the night at their workplace if their permit expires or the checkpoint closes.
The checkpoints, where Palestinians are subjected to all forms of humiliation and sometimes fatal violence, have been widely described by rights groups as death traps.
“The great difficulties that we face at the checkpoints during our day take up a lot of our life and time, they take away our dreams and aspirations and divide us and separate us from each other even when we are in the same country,” Sous said.
For Barq and Sous, one shock in Doha was their ability to easily head from one area to another with complete freedom. Sous said safety was a foreign feeling.
“It was a strange feeling that I felt very safe in an unoccupied and safe country like Qatar. I felt very happy that there was no occupation. At the same time, I felt how much the non-existence of occupation and the feeling of safety and peace are a great blessing that only those who lived under occupation feel,” Sous said.
However, moments of reality hit at some points.
Barq said he found himself on alert mode after arriving at a security check at one of the stadiums and was just moments away from taking off his shoes and unbuckling his belt before quickly realising he was not in Palestine.
Such responses were normal among Palestinians attending the World Cup, he said.
“It was a collective PTSD,” Barq noted.
In July 2018, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recorded 705 permanent obstacles across the West Bank. The figure was 3% higher than records from December 2016.
The obstacles include 140 fully or occasionally-staffed checkpoints and 251 other unstaffed obstacles ranging from trenches to roadblocks.
“The feeling that you reach your home, university, or work without a barrier is a blessing! Because you don’t have to think about the possibility of the checkpoints closing, or that a martyr can be killed, and the occupation prevents you from reaching any place you wanted to go, or simply that you may be the target and be killed!” Sous said.
For Sous, seeing the reality of a country void of obstacles and a separation wall that divides areas and families has allowed her to dream of what her life in Palestine could like like with the end of the occupation.
A sense of unity
Palestine was largely and unofficially described as the thirty-third participant at the tournament, with thousands from the region and beyond filmed waving the Palestinian flag as the whole world focused on the tournament.
The Palestinian flag, armband, and black-and-white scarf, known as the keffiyeh, were spotted across all stadiums, in a clear show of unity amid the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“The whole world was just trying to be united, you don’t have to be Palestinian to support the Palestinian cause,” Barq said.
The collective stance in Qatar against the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians highlighted a stark difference in sentiments across the border in countries like the United Arab Emirates, which has recently normalised relations with Israel to the dismay of Palestinians.
“It is as if they are reminding the world that Palestine is occupied and there is no bliss in living without liberating Palestine from the oppression of the occupation,” Sous said, speaking on unity on show during the World Cup.
Just months after the controversial Abraham Accords were signed to normalise Emirati and Bahraini ties with Israel, Morocco also followed suit. However, the Moroccan public’s opinion of such a move was put on blast at the tournament, with thousands of fans and the national team itself raising the Palestinian flag for the world to see.
“Literally, the World Cup was like a popular referendum rejecting the occupation and any process of normalisation that took place and will happen[…]will remain rejected by all living consciences and is not welcomed anywhere,” Sous said.
After more than two decades of life under occupation and isolation from the rest of the world, Barq was under the impression that the Palestinian cause was no longer a concern for the outside world.
“I was amazed by the solidarity of Palestine so much that I could not process it anymore[…]I was spoon-fed that nobody cares about Palestine and that my cause is boring,” Barq expressed.
In fact, the tournament in Qatar allowed a bewildered Barq to raise his own flag for the first time without hesitation. Such a move back home would undoubtedly be met with violence, assault, arrest, or even death at the hands of the Israelis, who deem such a sight to be a threat to Israel’s existence.
“Since our early childhood, we have been hearing about and seeing Arab solidarity, especially in football stadiums which are usually popular platforms to showcase solidarity,” Hijazi said.
“We always say that if it was up to the people of the region, there would not be a single Zionist soldier on the land of Palestine,” Hijazi added.