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The Tragedy of Pro-Palestinian Activism at the World Cup

Protests at the World Cup are basically meaningless on the ground, where a conflict exists that has no solution.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Fans hold a large banner featuring a Palestinian flag and the slogan "Free Palestine" in the stands.
Fans hold a large banner featuring a Palestinian flag and the slogan "Free Palestine" in the stands.
Fans hold up a banner reading “Free Palestine” during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match between the Netherlands and Qatar at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 29. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The soccer at this year’s World Cup has been tremendous fun, with the Saudis beating the powerful Argentine team in the group stage and the U.S. team playing the English to a tie before their emotionally draining win over Iran. As I write, the Moroccan team is readying for a titanic match against France, a perennial soccer powerhouse and former colonial overlord in North Africa. Both aspects—Morocco’s improbable run and its opponent in the semifinals—promise to make this game (or at least the run-up to it) one for the ages.

I do not remember politics being important in previous World Cups, but this year’s tournament in Qatar is intertwined with the country’s poor record on LGBTQ+ rights and its mistreatment of migrant workers. Palestinian rights have also been a major flash point at the games. When Morocco advanced to the quarterfinals by beating Spain, the players’ celebration on the field included hoisting the Palestinian flag. Fans have held signs that read “Free Palestine” in the stands and hung them from stadium walls. During the France-Tunisia game, a fan eluded security, running across the field while flying Palestine’s standard, much to the delight of the crowd. It has been quite a display of pro-Palestinian solidarity, and it’s no doubt been important for Palestinians to have been seen at the World Cup. But to what end?

That there has been a fair amount of Palestinian activism around the World Cup should not have surprised anyone given the tournament’s venue and the large number of Middle Eastern fans in attendance. Still, the Twittersphere swooned at the sights and sounds of the Palestinian flag and pro-Palestine slogans, cheers, and songs. Major U.S. newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post—along with various other news outlets—highlighted this solidarity. An article in the online magazine +972, a joint endeavor of Israeli and Palestinian journalists, went so far as to call the tournament “The first Palestinian World Cup.” It is fair to surmise that most of these folks were not actually pro-Palestine activists. They were soccer fans who support Palestinian rights and took advantage of the global stage that is the world’s largest soccer tournament.

The soccer at this year’s World Cup has been tremendous fun, with the Saudis beating the powerful Argentine team in the group stage and the U.S. team playing the English to a tie before their emotionally draining win over Iran. As I write, the Moroccan team is readying for a titanic match against France, a perennial soccer powerhouse and former colonial overlord in North Africa. Both aspects—Morocco’s improbable run and its opponent in the semifinals—promise to make this game (or at least the run-up to it) one for the ages.

I do not remember politics being important in previous World Cups, but this year’s tournament in Qatar is intertwined with the country’s poor record on LGBTQ+ rights and its mistreatment of migrant workers. Palestinian rights have also been a major flash point at the games. When Morocco advanced to the quarterfinals by beating Spain, the players’ celebration on the field included hoisting the Palestinian flag. Fans have held signs that read “Free Palestine” in the stands and hung them from stadium walls. During the France-Tunisia game, a fan eluded security, running across the field while flying Palestine’s standard, much to the delight of the crowd. It has been quite a display of pro-Palestinian solidarity, and it’s no doubt been important for Palestinians to have been seen at the World Cup. But to what end?

That there has been a fair amount of Palestinian activism around the World Cup should not have surprised anyone given the tournament’s venue and the large number of Middle Eastern fans in attendance. Still, the Twittersphere swooned at the sights and sounds of the Palestinian flag and pro-Palestine slogans, cheers, and songs. Major U.S. newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post—along with various other news outlets—highlighted this solidarity. An article in the online magazine +972, a joint endeavor of Israeli and Palestinian journalists, went so far as to call the tournament “The first Palestinian World Cup.” It is fair to surmise that most of these folks were not actually pro-Palestine activists. They were soccer fans who support Palestinian rights and took advantage of the global stage that is the world’s largest soccer tournament.

Meanwhile, Israeli journalists covering the tournament have complained of open hostility toward them, including Arab fans walking away from interviews once they discovered who they were talking to and outright heckling. In one incident that received a lot of play on social media, a Saudi soccer fan tells Israeli journalist Moav Vardy, “You are not welcome here. This is Qatar. This is our country. There is only Palestine. No Israel.”

Israel’s critics were quick to argue that the vocal support for Palestine and hostility toward Israelis during the tournament proved that the Abraham Accords—which normalized Israel’s diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—had failed. It is unclear what that means against the backdrop of increased economic cooperation, diplomatic ties, and security coordination between Israel and those countries, but it is clear—and not just from anecdotes from the tournament—that majorities of Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa remain opposed to normalization. Polls done by a variety of groups—including the Arab Barometer, Zogby Research Services, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—reflect this fact. At best, Arabs accept that Israel is a reality, but they do not accept its legitimacy.

After years in which Israeli, U.S., and some Arab officials have made it clear that the Palestine issue was no longer important, it must have been moving for Palestinians when soccer fans declared that, to them, it is. But while vindication is sweet, the pro-Palestine solidarity at the World Cup reveals how activists are bereft of ideas for advancing the Palestinian cause. Having embarrassed and chagrined Israeli journalists, hoisted Palestine’s flag, raised banners reading “Free Palestine,” and chanted, “With spirit and blood, we will redeem you, O Palestine,” now what? Without a doubt, the World Cup raises awareness of Palestine. But just exactly who around the world needs this awareness? It is hard to find an issue that has garnered more international attention over a longer period of time than Palestine.

Coming out of the World Cup, what are the fresh ideas to achieve justice for Palestinians? There don’t seem to be any. The two-state solution is a unicorn, and other ideas range from mindless to nonstarters. I once asked a Saudi interlocutor who believes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “is the best thing that ever happened to Saudi Arabia” about normalization, given the widely held view that the crown prince wanted to establish ties with Israel. She was very clear: “The 6 million settlers”—meaning not West Bank settlers but Israelis in general—“can go back to where they came from.” I heard something similar from an American living in Europe who once advised the Palestinian Authority. He said he believes that Palestine should be restored and that Israelis who did not want to live there should be relocated to the United States. This seems unlikely.

There are advocates and analysts who see a pathway to a one-state solution in which Jews and Palestinian Arabs live together. Perhaps I am not creative enough, but this seems hard to imagine given the breadth and depth of differences between Israelis and Palestinians on a range of difficult issues related to legitimacy, identity, historical memory, and nationalism.

Then there is the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, whose supporters are playing a long game. In theory, it seems like a smart strategy, which is why BDS gives Israeli officials and supporters around the world fits. By highlighting the injustice done to Palestinians and the iniquity of Zionism on social media, on university campuses, and at various cultural institutions, BDS activists aim to undermine international support—both political and financial—for Israel over time. And once governments around the world come under pressure from their publics who demand redress for the Palestinians, so the thinking goes, those governments will withdraw support from Israel, forcing the conflict to end. BDS supporters say their goal is a Palestinian state, but they are mostly coy about whether that means one alongside Israel or instead of it.

Why do BDS supporters believe that they and the Palestinians have time on their side, but Israelis do not? Sure, demographically, non-Jews are a plurality in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, in between annual campus “Israel Apartheid Week” demonstrations, the Israeli government is tightening its grip on the West Bank in what is clearly a long-term creeping and illegal annexation. This has been happening for decades. It is already likely too late to reverse. Moreover, BDS activists have failed to convince global companies to withdraw their operations from or sever ties with Israel, and Israel today has relations with over 160 countries, including six members of the Arab League.

Here is the tragedy of the Palestinian problem: The activism at the World Cup is basically meaningless on the ground, where a conflict exists that has no solution. Israel, the United States, and even Arab states have thwarted the Palestinians at every turn, resulting in a stalemate that defies resolution because neither party can accept the other side’s minimal demands for peace.

As a result, the Palestinians will likely remain stateless and dispossessed, and Israelis will remain outsiders in a region whose publics refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in their midst. And because of the nature of politics in the region, the day after the tournament ends, Israelis will still fly to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Rabat, and Manama. The Saudis will still give special visas to Israeli businessmen. The Qataris will still deal with the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry over Gaza and allow Israeli diamond traders into Doha. And the Palestinian flag will continue to fly in places around the region except where the Palestinians want it most: in their independent state.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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