Arab soccer fans at the first World Cup in the Middle East are shunning Israeli journalists in Qatar trying to interview them, illustrating challenges facing wider “warm peace” ambitions two years after some Gulf states forged ties with Israel.
Israeli officials have voiced hope that the US-brokered Abraham Accords reached with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, and later Sudan and Morocco, would spur further normalization, including with Arab heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
Some Israeli reporters flew to Qatar ahead of the event on connecting flights, while one was on the first direct flight from Tel Aviv into Doha on Sunday under a FIFA-brokered agreement between the two countries that have no formal ties.
Interview attempts with Arab fans, however, fell flat with reporters from public broadcaster Kan and top-rated Channel 12 TV telling Reuters interviewees had walked away. A Channel 13 reporter said in an on-air report that fans had declined, shouted “Palestine” and draped Tunisian flags on their shoulders.
Footage circulating online showed two Saudi fans, a Qatari shopper and three Lebanese fans walking away from Israeli reporters.
Saudi national Khaled al-Omri, who works in the oil industry and was in Qatar to support his home team, told Reuters he hoped the Tel Aviv-Doha flight route would not become permanent.
“We hope that after the World Cup they’ll close down this air route. Sure, most countries in the Arab world are heading towards normalization – but that’s because most of them don’t have rulers who listen to their people,” he said.
Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have linked any normalization to Palestinian statehood in Israeli-occupied territory.
But Riyadh has made some overtures this year by opening its airspace to all airlines, including Israeli carriers.
Qatar has said the FIFA-brokered flights, which would allow both Israeli and Palestinian fans to fly to Doha, should not be politicized. The US State Department lauded the deal as holding “great promise to bolster people-to-people ties and economic relations”.
While Israel did not qualify for the World Cup, it had hoped the presence of an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Israelis at the event would warm ties.
Aseel Sharayah, a 27-year-old Jordanian at the tournament, said he would have also refused to talk to Israeli journalists, though Amman signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994.
“If I did see any of them, there’d be absolutely no time of interaction,” said Sharayah, who works for the European-Jordanian Committee in Amman. “Their policies are closing the door on any opportunity for more ties between the countries.”