On Wednesday morning, Morocco became the first Arab country in history to reach the quarter-final of a World Cup, defeating former champions Spain on penalties after a dogged, disciplined 120 minutes of football.

As the celebrations unfolded, the entire Moroccan national team and its staff gathered for a photo near one of the sidelines. The flag they unfurled, though, was not the red-and-green of their homeland. Instead, the group proudly displayed the flag of a nation that is recognised by FIFA but which has never competed at the tournament at all: Palestine.

A men's soccer team wearing red and green holds a flag while posing for a photo
Morocco’s national team players have shown visible support for the Palestinian cause despite their government signing diplomatic agreements with Israel.(AP Photo: Martin Meissner)

As the first World Cup to be hosted in the Middle East, Qatar 2022 has become the stage on which many of the area’s most pressing cultural and political issues are being played out.

From Iran’s on-field protests in solidarity with the uprising occurring back home, to the deeper geopolitical and economic shifts occurring across the Gulf of which this tournament forms a part, this World Cup has, perhaps more than any other, illustrated the deep entanglements between sport and politics.

The presence of the Palestinian cause in Qatar through the ubiquity of their flag, whether in stadiums or amongst fans at popular tourist sites, is yet another example of the politics bubbling beneath the surface of this World Cup and of global football more generally – despite FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s pre-tournament pleas to keep them separate.

The Palestinian diaspora is vast, with millions now living in various countries across the Middle East, including Qatar. Many are descended from those who fled or were forcibly expelled from the region in 1948 upon the creation of Israel (estimated at over half of the Palestinian Arab population at the time), or who evacuated East Jerusalem and the West Bank after these territories came under Israeli occupation following the Six-Day War in 1967.

Soccer fans hold a large banner with a Palestinian flag during a game
Large banners have been unfurled at several World Cup games, including the Group A opener between Qatar and the Netherlands.(Getty Images: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images)

Because Palestine itself is not taking part in the World Cup as a national team, the area’s many displaced Palestinians have turned out to support the other Arab and African nations who are here, particularly Morocco, Iran, Qatar, and Tunisia. Likewise, fans of these nations have turned out to support Palestinians in return.

Flags, banners, t-shirts, armbands, and traditional keffiyeh scarves have been visible everywhere at the tournament, unfurled by large groups of supporters in the stands, clutched in the hands of pitch invaders, and waved above crowds singing traditional protest songs like “Ali Al-Keffiyeh” (Raise Your Keffiyeh) throughout Doha’s many tourist hubs and fan zones.

While World Cups are usually places of fierce national divisions and rivalries, Qatar has instead offered a rare moment of widespread solidarity in many parts of the Arab world for the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation.

“The World Cup has given us a platform to make our voice heard,” Bader, a Palestinian living in Qatar, told Al Jazeera.

“People from all over the world are here in Qatar and when they see us dressed like this, they come up to us and ask where we are from.

“It gives us a chance to acquaint them with the situation in our homeland, show them our culture, and narrate our history.

“They know about Israel, but not about Palestine. There was no Israel until it occupied Palestine.”

A platform for protest

While the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians go back decades, political decision-making and escalating violence in the occupied territories over the past few years have made these protests all the more urgent.

In 2020, Israel signed a series of diplomatic agreements titled the “Abraham Accords,” brokered by former US president Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Donald Trump and Israel's PM look down proudly as the leaders of Bahrain and UAE hold their hands over their hearts.
Former US president Donald Trump poses with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (far left), Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa (centre-right), and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan (far right) after signing the Abraham Accords.(AP: Alex Brandon)

The aim was to “normalise” relations between Israel and three Arab governments – Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco, as well as the African nation of Sudan – helping establish economic and tourist ties while also boosting political and security cooperation between Israel and the Gulf countries growing increasingly concerned about a nuclear Iran.

However, as this World Cup is highlighting, this relationship-building at government level is not shared by people on the ground – particularly in countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, all of which refuse to enter into diplomatic negotiations with Israel until a Palestinian state is established.

Currently, 138 of the United Nations’ 193 members recognise Palestine as a non-member observer state – including almost every country in Africa, South America and Asia. Australia is one of the UN members that does not, alongside the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, among others.

Recognition of Palestine as a state has, however, been floated by the Australian Labor Party in the past, including at its 2018 and 2021 national conferences, as part of ongoing calls for a two-state solution.

In November, Qatar came under criticism by pro-Palestinian Qatari activists for opening a direct flight path with Israel for the first time. But the government made its position clear, saying the temporary arrangement was done only to comply with FIFA’s hosting requirements and that: “Any escalation in al-Quds [Jerusalem], Gaza Strip or the West Bank during this time will risk the cancellation of the agreement – including the direct flights.”

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Qatar is not alone in its stance. A survey conducted by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in 2020 found that 88 per cent of 28,000 people polled across the Arab world opposed any form of “normalisation” deal with Israel; a widespread populist opposition that has continued to spill over into this World Cup.

Double standard sees Iranian, pro-LGBT protests suppressed

Besides the omnipresence of the flag in Qatar, dozens of videos showing Israeli journalists – the most visible Israeli presence on the ground – being harassed or ignored entirely by locals or Arab visitors have gone viral, while some pro-Palestinian fans have agreed to be filmed by Israeli journalists only to shout “Free Palestine!” once the cameras started rolling.

And yet, there is a double standard at play when it comes to the hyper-visibility of pro-Palestinian symbols at the World Cup.

While Qatar, which also hosts Hamas, has allowed flags and posters that support the Palestinian cause, authorities there have reportedly been far less accommodating of Iranian protesters, confiscating banners reading “Women, Life, Freedom” and forcing fans to remove shirts with the name or face of Mahsa Amini, whose death in custody sparked the unrest across Iran.

It’s not just Qatar that can be accused of hypocrisy in this way, though. FIFA, too, has been unclear in the kinds of protest symbols that are or are not allowed inside stadiums.

Where Palestinian flags were seemingly allowed to be carried by the Moroccan players around the pitch after their famous win, the governing body clamped down on some European teams wearing “One Love” armbands in the very same spaces, threatening them with sporting sanctions if they did so.

Similarly, while FIFA has repeatedly stated that rainbow-coloured items like flags and shirts are allowed in stadiums, the World Cup has seen multiple reports of fans having those items removed or being removed from stadiums altogether themselves

Not all protests, it seems, are created equal.

‘The people of the Arab world will have the final say’

For much of the Western world, there is an element of out of sight, out of mind to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fading into the background of the 24/7 news cycle, usurped by more immediate daily things.

Sport is one of the few places where this issue is able to crash back into mainstream public consciousness, and is a reminder of why tournaments like Olympic Games and World Cups matter in wider cultural and political conversations, particularly for parts of the world that are often otherwise ignored.

Iran supporters hold up a flag saying women life freedom and a shirt with Mahsa Amini 22 on it
Iranian fans have also used the Qatar World Cup to draw attention to the protests occurring back home.(Getty Images: Matthias Hangst)

For Palestinians, their absent-presence in this tournament – in the sense that they are a community represented by thousands of flags, scarves, and songs sung by people from other nations – reflects the current state of flux they find themselves in, existing and not existing at the same time depending on who you ask.

Which is why their visibility through the proxy of Morocco’s national team is so powerful.

In fact, the Moroccan government’s diplomatic ties with Israel through the Abraham Accords means that the national team’s bold display of the Palestinian flag has much more significance than simple solidarity with their Arab neighbours.

It is, simultaneously, a protest against their own political leadership – akin to Iran’s players refusing to sing the national anthem – and thus a statement containing much greater value given the potential risks associated with speaking out against one’s government using a platform as high-profile as a World Cup.

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“Those who say that politics and sport do not mix know very little about the representation of football on the collective aspirations of people in the Middle East and around the world,” Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud said.

“To see Palestinians cheering for Morocco and Moroccans cheering for Palestine is one of the most significant Arab popular rejections of normalisation with Israel.

“This moment will live in the minds of several generations of Arabs forever.”

With all other Arab nations having been eliminated from the tournament, Morocco’s national team – and all those who support them, Moroccan or otherwise – has now become the last representative of this deeper struggle: the final visible symbol in Qatar of the fight for Palestinian freedom.

“Palestine has been the winner in this World Cup,” tweeted Amro Ali, a professor of Middle Eastern sociology at the American University in Cairo.

“Arab regimes can pursue normalisation, but the people of the Arab world will have the final say. Congratulations Morocco on your victory and principled stance.”