By Ramzy Baroud
We were mistaken to think that Palestine represents the central issue for all Arabs. Such language suggests that Palestine is an external subject, to be compared to other collective struggles that consume most Arabs everywhere. However, the ongoing celebration of Palestine and the Palestinian flag at the Qatar World Cup by thousands of Arab fans compels us to rethink our earlier assumptions about the Arab people’s relationship with Palestine.
The starting point to my argument is Rome, Italy, not Doha, Qatar. In August 2021, I attended a friendly football match between Morocco’s Raja Casablanca and the Italian team AS Roma. Thousands of Moroccan fans accompanied their team. Although fewer in number, their matching outfits, songs, chants and dances in the stands made them more visible than the Italian supporters.
Although the environment of the game had little or no political context, the Moroccans sang for Palestine and wore keffiyehs draped with the colors of the Palestinian flag. It was a heartwarming gesture, typical of Arab fans at football matches. As the supporters began leaving the stadium, I realized that the fan culture of Raja Casablanca was modeled entirely around Palestine. Their main slogan is “Rajawi Filistini” (Palestinian Rajawis), the words embroidered on their jerseys.
Considering the absence of political context to that match, clearly the Moroccans have internalized their support for Palestine to the extent that it has become an integral part of their everyday reality. When I asked a group of them why they embrace Palestinian symbols and chants, the question puzzled them. “Palestine is in our blood. The love for Palestine runs in our veins,” an older man answered, overcome with emotion.
Multiple studies have been conducted in recent years to gauge Arab public opinion about the importance of Palestine, most notably the Arab Opinion Index survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in 2020. This poll found that 85 percent of respondents opposed normalization with Israel. Indeed, the Arab people remain clear on their allegiance to the Palestinian struggle for freedom.
The Qatar World Cup, however, raises new questions, not about the centrality of Palestine to the Arab political consciousness, but whether the representations of Palestine are merely political and whether Palestine is just another “issue” to be juxtaposed with other urgent Arab causes.
Even the Israelis, with their much-touted intelligence agencies and supposedly good grasp of the mood of the so-called Arab street, seemed confused and even angry as they rushed to Qatar to report on the World Cup. They also sought to use the international sports event as a way to translate diplomatic recognition and political normalizations into popular acceptance.
However, two Israeli reporters, Raz Shechnik and Oz Mualem, returned to Israel disappointed. Failing to connect the dots between Israel’s apartheid and military occupation in Palestine, the Yedioth Ahronoth journalists reached this convenient conclusion: “Despite believing, as open-minded liberals we are, that the conflict with the Arab world is between governments and not the people, Qatar has taught us that hate exists first and foremost in the mind of the man on the street.”
Not only did the “open-minded liberals” lack any sense of self-awareness, they, like most Israelis, had completely dismissed the Arab people as political actors who are capable of thinking and behaving according to their own collective priorities. Moreover, they also confused the Arabs’ justifiable anger at the terrible injustices inflicted by Israelis on the Palestinians for random “hate,” which seems to simply reflect the supposedly hateful nature of the Arabs.
If the two reporters reflected on their own reporting with a truly — not self-proclaimed — open mind, they would have found some clues. “Whenever we report, we are being followed at all times by Palestinians, Iranians, Qataris, Moroccans, Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Lebanese … all giving us looks full of hate,” they wrote.
Considering the deep political divisions that presently exist among Arab nations, one wonders why ordinary people from vastly diverse Arab and Middle Eastern nations are united in “hating” Israel and loving Palestine. The answer does not lie in the word “anti-Semitism,” but in representations.
For Arabs, Israel represents a history of Western imperialism and colonialism, military occupation, racism, violence, political meddling, military interventions, wars and more wars, daily images of Palestinian boys and girls killed by Israeli soldiers, violent Israeli settlers forcibly expelling Palestinians from their homes and farms, political arrogance and much more.
Palestinians, on the other hand, represent something else entirely. They embody the unhealed wound of all Arabs. Courage and sacrifice. Refusal to surrender. Resistance. Hope.
Most Israelis are unable to grasp the organic relationship between Arabs and Palestine simply because they refuse to accept that their country summons such negative feelings. Contending with this reality would mean deep and uncomfortable reflections. The likes of Shechnik and Mualem would rather explain such a complex task through some convenient references about inexplicable and unjustifiable Arab “hate” of Israel.
The Arab embrace of Palestine is not only about Israel, but also about the Arabs themselves. Though the Palestinian flag was inspired by the pan-Arab flag of 1916, it has morphed, over the years, to serve the role of the unifying Arab symbol.
The fact that Arab football fans in Qatar have spontaneously chosen, without any official instructions or government intervention, to use the Palestinian flag as their symbol of unity speaks volumes about Palestine’s position in the collective Arab consciousness. It also tells us that the love for Palestine is not a direct outcome of hating Israel, nor is it that the Arabs view Palestine as a symbol of defeat or humiliation.
When Moroccan player Jawad El-Yamiq celebrated his team’s World Cup victory over Canada last week, thus guaranteeing Morocco’s progress to the knockout stages, he raised a Palestinian flag. In the background, Moroccan fans were chanting for Palestine and Morocco. For them, Palestine is not an external cause and their cheers are not simply an act of solidarity. For them, Palestine and Morocco are synonymous, describing the same collective experience of defeat, struggle and, ultimately, victory.