The prohibited wavin’ flag: Palestinian solidarity at the World Cup

The prohibited Wavin' flag: Palestinian solidarity at the World Cup
8 min read
29 November, 2022
International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People: With visible displays of support for Palestine at the Qatar World Cup, we delve into the nature of this support and also the sanctions faced by those who have protested for the cause.

The FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar has provided us with many firsts.

It’s the first World Cup to be hosted in an Arab and Muslim country. It’s the first World Cup to be hosted in winter.

However, with today marking The UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, it must be highlighted that this is the first World Cup, as well as an international football tournament, that’s seen the most uncensored and widespread support for the Palestinian cause in history.

"Palestinian solidarity within a footballing space has always been restricted. Governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA have constantly made examples out of players, teams and fans for outwardly protesting Israeli apartheid and its human rights abuses"

Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, Somali-Canadian artist K’naan released the football anthem of the century, “Wavin’ Flag”. For those who have seen their voices silenced for a lifetime, this song holds a symbolic meaning.

We’ve witnessed Palestinian flags waving high in the stadiums as well as fans from all backgrounds sporting Keffiyeh’s, the native Palestinian headdress, which has become a symbol of resistance.

These homages signify the solidarity of football fans and their sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. As the culture and information spread to other visitors from across the world, the hope is that this imagery inspires a new generation of activism.

Another sentiment present among fans is their disapproval of normalisation between the Arab countries and Israel. In September 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements to normalise relations with Israel. Mediated by the United States, these agreements are formally known as the “Abraham Accords”.

Prior to this, the only two Arab countries to formally recognise Israel were Egypt and Jordan, in 1979 and 1994, respectively. December 2020 and January 2021 saw Morocco and Sudan follow suit and join the Abraham Accords.

This was a move that rocked Moroccan civil society. On this day in 2021, thousands of pro-Palestine protestors took to the streets in 36 cities across the kingdom to protest a visit by Benny Gantz, the Israeli Defence Minister, to Rabat.

Groups of Moroccan fans were heard singing songs of resistance in Qatar:

“To our beloved Palestine… Where are the Arabs, are they asleep? Oh, the most beautiful of all countries. Resist!

May God protect you from the oppression of your enemies and those that want to take from you. 

We won’t let anything happen to you, oh Gaza, even though you’re far away. Oh Rafah, and Ramallah, the Arab world is sick…”

Fans hold a Flag of Palestine with Free Palestine written on it during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between Tunisia and Australia at Al Janoub Stadium
Fans hold a Flag of Palestine with Free Palestine written on it during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between Tunisia and Australia at Al Janoub Stadium [Getty Images]

This displeasure at normalisation has manifested most commonly in the rejection of Israeli news reporters. Dozens of videos have gone viral of fans refusing to participate in Israeli coverage of the tournament, many making their stances towards the illegal occupation felt very strongly.

One particular video that surfaced focused on three Lebanese men who were being interviewed in Arabic by an Israeli reporter. Upon asking him where he’s from and finding out, they immediately walked away from the camera in disbelief. The reporter continued to speak to them. After one was heard saying “Free Palestine”, he retorted “You say Palestine. I say Israel”. The video clip ended with the Lebanese man insisting to the reporter “Israel doesn’t exist”.

This conversation has been a common one for Israeli reporters, some of whom have resorted to unorthodox tactics to try and deceive fans into speaking with them. One Israeli reporter claimed that he is Ecuadorian, until a supporter off-camera raised the concern that Hebrew and Spanish are two completely different languages. The Spanish language, funnily enough, is closer to Arabic, with 8% of the Spanish dictionary deriving from Arabic root words.

Although the World Cup may have provided Israeli correspondents with awkward and uncomfortable scenarios, journalists are not being killed in cold blood. Some fans have made a point of holding up imagery of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist who was shot and killed by the IDF in May 2022 while reporting a raid on Jenin.

Palestinian solidarity within a footballing space has always been restricted. Governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA have constantly made examples out of players, teams and fans for outwardly protesting Israeli apartheid and its human rights abuses. Let us delve into a few examples.

Scottish Solidarity

Football fans who keep Palestine close to their hearts will be acutely aware of the deep connection that fans of Scottish football club Celtic have to the cause, a stance that has landed the club in trouble in the past.

A 2014 Champions League game versus KR Reykjavik saw the club fined £16,000 after a Palestine flag was displayed in a stand. At this same time, Israel had launched Operation Protective Edge, but what was the result of this operation?

This was a military operation launched by Israel on the Gaza Strip from 8th July - 26th August 2014. Within that time frame, Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, 551 of them being children.

The total casualties amounted to 11,231. The UNRWA reported that 3,436 children were injured, with approximately 1/3 of them facing lifelong disabilities as a result of injuries sustained in the operation. Almost half a million Palestinians were displaced internally within Gaza as a result. 

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Where is the international outcry for the basic human rights of these people? Or are they deemed unworthy?

In August 2016, the club was fined £8,616 for an “illicit banner” in the stands, confirming that this is what UEFA deems the Palestinian flag to be. They were playing at home against Israeli side Hapoel Be'er Sheva FC, whose own stadium is less than 25 miles from the Gaza Strip.

The Celtic faithful have never been shy of exposing and highlighting humanity’s worst war crimes. They proceeded to raise money for Palestinian charities to match the fine. Fans managed to fundraise over £130,000 with their campaign #MatchTheFineForPalestine.

Egyptian Sympathy

30 miles from the same stadium in Be'er Sheva, lies the neighbouring country of Egypt, whose sportspeople have never failed to make their political voices heard on the Palestinian issue.

On the 26th January 2008, the Egyptian national football team were playing a group-stage match against Sudan in the African Cup of Nations. Egypt’s decorated midfielder, Mohamed Aboutrika, finds himself in the centre of the penalty box, on the receiving end of a smooth sideways pass from Amr Zaki in the 78th minute. After his first shot is blocked, he smashes the second home. It’s his first of the game and Egypt’s second, all but securing the three points for The Pharaohs.

Palestinian children wave flags to support the 2022 FIFA World Cup held at Qatar, in Gaza [Getty Images]
Palestinian children wave flags to support the 2022 FIFA World Cup held at Qatar, in Gaza [Getty Images]

As he runs towards the corner flag to celebrate, he pulls the bottom of his shirt up and over his head, outstretching his arms in jubilation. A strong message is imprinted in green upon his white undershirt, in both English and Arabic. It reads “Sympathise with Gaza”.

The words he proudly wore were in protest of a 10-day blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel. He was given a yellow card in-game for sporting a political slogan, as well as later being handed a formal warning by the Confederation of African Football, whose parent organisation is FIFA. Regardless of the punishment he faced, he was praised nationwide by the press in Egypt for his noble act.

Aboutrika has since made headlines again for criticising FIFA. In March 2022, he slammed the football governing body for applying double standards in their practices. He believes that Israel should be sanctioned in the same way that Russia has after the latter was banned from participating in all international football tournaments after the country invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

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The month of March and beyond saw the football world flooded with a deluge of support for Ukraine, with flags being brandished in stadiums by the majority of fans. Were these clubs and fans subjected to fines and sanctions in the same way Celtic or Aboutrika were? This is not to say that we shouldn’t support all citizens under illegal occupation, but more so to reiterate that only certain struggles are deemed acceptable to support in public, while others are seen as taboo.

From the examples aforementioned, one can see that for supporters of Palestine, there is serious resilience in the face of adversity. Whether it be mainstream media, national governments or in this scenario football federations, we are aware of the difficulties we will face in this fight for justice that we have been engaged in for so long.

The scenes from this World Cup have been heart-warming, but a real success would be a result that negates the necessity for protest and displays of solidarity. Let this tournament teach lessons to the world, and hopefully one day they’ll call us freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.

Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.

Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_