Israeli journalists have flocked to Doha this month to cover the World Cup, with some turning it into a mission to make the Arab public “speak to Israel”. But in frequent interactions captured via social media, fans have politely declined the offer in different ways. Some have refused to engage in conversation; others have indicated their commitment to the Palestinian cause; and others have simply walked away upon realising the reporter was from Israel.
The politics of recognition animates the Israeli “journalistic mission” in Qatar and elsewhere. These journalists, like much of the Israeli public and western media, appear to have convinced themselves that Palestine and Palestinians have disappeared from the Arab consciousness amid shifting geopolitics throughout the Arab world.
For Israeli and western pundits, these geopolitical changes have represented a mini-version of the end of history in the Middle East. They generally take the presumed “disappearance” of Palestinians as a positive factor that enabled the so-called Abraham Accords and the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab states in 2020.Perhaps there is no better occasion to reap the fruits of normalisation than at a World Cup hosted by an Arab state that has temporarily permitted the Israeli media to freely travel to and report from Qatar, even though it has no official ties with Israel. Some Israeli journalists have apparently taken it upon themselves to show that it was not just Arab regimes who reconciled with – or rather, capitulated to – the Zionist colonial project, but also the Arab people.
In this sense, the act of “speaking to Israel” is interpreted as a form of recognition, or at least a powerful indication of edging closer towards the vanishing endpoint of settler-colonialism in Palestine. The endpoint requires the legitimation of Israel’s sovereignty from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and the displacement of the indigenous population.
They found the opposite in Qatar. While Israel has obtained the recognition of some Arab regimes, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation, it has utterly failed to elicit recognition from Arab publics.
“Speaking to Israel” in this context is intended to obtain popular recognition that would legitimise and normalise the Israeli settler-colonial structure, which continues to dispossess Palestinians. Thus, in refusing to speak, Arab citizens are sending a straightforward message to those in power in the Middle East and in the West, that they are against normalisation without justice – regardless of how many “peace” agreements Israel signs with Arab regimes.
Instead of “speaking”, Arab fans have held up a mirror in front of Israeli cameras, reminding viewers of what they have doggedly attempted to forget: Palestine. This reminds Israeli journalists and their audiences of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, occupation, Palestinian refugees and the ongoing Nakba (catastrophe) since 1948. Morocco football fans alluded to this during the World Cup by unfurling a “Free Palestine” banner in the 48th minute of the Morocco-Belgium match.