Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli national teams qualified for the Fifa World Cup in Qatar but the presence of Israelis in the small host country — which holds no diplomatic formal relations with Israel — has become a flashpoint of televised contention.
Only a few days into the tournament, the presence of Israeli reporters has led to some surreal and tense interactions with Arab fans in the Gulf country. Israel has diplomatic relations with Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain. However, the occupation of Palestinian land defines attitudes to Israel for many Arabs.
"Arabs just don’t want to be caught speaking to Israeli media," one reporter complained to his anchor on Israeli TV.
In one of the most viewed examples of such exchanges, an Israeli reporter approached three Lebanese football fans.
“Hi, how are you?” he asked in Arabic. “Are you Lebanese? I’m Israeli.”
The Lebanese group immediately turned and walked away.
“It’s Palestine,” one of them yelled back as he retreated.
Lebanon does not formally recognise Israel and the two countries have been in a technical state of war since 1948 — the year Israel was declared a state after the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land. That mass exodus of Palestinians is referred to as the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe, to Arabs, and the ‘War of Independence’ to Israelis. Lebanon's citizens are forbidden by law from associating with Israelis.
Versions of such exchanges have made it all over social media, with Israeli reporters repeatedly shunned by Arab fans upon finding out they are being interviewed for Israeli TV.
In exchange for hosting the World Cup, Qatar was required to allow people of all nationalities to attend the games — including citizens of Israel. Although Israelis under normal circumstances are not permitted to visit the Gulf state, the World Cup host has granted them exceptional access, providing chartered flights for the duration of the tournament. And for the first time in history, Qatar is — temporarily — allowing consular services for Israeli citizens.
Critics have viewed it as a tepid move towards formalising relations between the two countries. But officials in Qatar insist the temporary measures are purely to comply with Fifa hosting requirements — and are not a step towards normalisation.
The travel arrangement for Israeli citizens was “part of Qatar’s commitment to Fifa’s hosting requirements and it should not be politicised”, a Qatari government statement said of the travel permitted between the two countries.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry — aware of the potential tension — even launched a campaign urging Israelis to refrain from calling attention to themselves.
Football is a notorious bedrock for the manifestation of political messages and rivalries. The congregation of nationalities from all over the world to the massive football tournament is no different this year.
Ohad Hamo, an Israeli Channel 12 correspondent, makes mention of this: "Although we signed four normalisation agreements, the majority of Arab peoples do not like our presence here."
He broadcast a clip to illustrate his point: “Hi, I’m Israeli,” he says in the video.
“There’s no Israel. There’s Palestine,” a man cloaked in the flag of Palestine replies. “Palestine! Palestine!”
“Facts on the ground,” Mr Hamo yells over the fan. “Facts on the ground. Facts on the ground. Israel is here until the day of judgment.”
In another video, an Israeli reporter seemingly finds a willing participant — an Egyptian fan who has agreed to be interviewed on TV.
“We are together,” the reporter says into the mic. “We’re happy.”
The journalist moves the mic near the Egyptian man. The fan grins mischievously.