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Not at the World Cup but Palestine is the 33rd team in Doha

The Palestinian flag flutters from the roofs and balconies of houses, from windows of cars and beside the shutter of shops. Fans wear armbands and bracelets with “Save Palestine” written on them

A pitch invader holding the Palestinian flag runs onto the pitch during the match on the left and Fans wave the Palestinian flag in game on the right, (Reuters/ AP)

After Morocco sealed their moment of history, beating Spain to the quarterfinals, their players came together for a team photograph. Most of them were draped in their red flag that has a green interlaced pentangle. But before they posed for the photograph, they unfolded another flag, of Palestine’s. In the stands, too, soared similar flags representing the disputed land. The black, green, white tricolour flag with red triangle flag has been a common sight this World Cup, so ubiquitous that you feel Palestine is one among the 32 countries playing the World Cup.

It’s the 33rd country, says Abdel Saleh, a Palestinian settled in Qatar for two decades. “Our country might not be playing in the World Cup, but our cause is in the minds of people. I am so happy that the whole Arab world has united for us, and is delivering the message on the biggest stage in the world. Maybe, one day we can play in the World Cup. Maybe, one day we can be a fully free country, a land of peace as it once used to be,” he says.

The Palestinian flag can be seen beyond the stadium too. They flutter from the roofs and balconies of houses, from windows of cars and beside the shutter of shops. Men and women come to the ground wearing arm-bands and bracelets with “Save Palestine” written on them.
You could spot hijabs and scarves in the green, white, red and black of the Palestinian flag. Some men were spotted wearing keffiyehs in the shades of the flag, though Palestinian men generally don’t wear the traditional Arabic head-dress. In the stands, you could hear the chants: “Save, save Palestine.. Peace, peace, Palestine…”

Those waving the flags and belting out slogans are not just Palestinians—an estimated 50,000 refugees are settled in Qatar—but those from other Arab nations, Latin America, South Asia and Europe as well. During the Tunisia-Australia match, a fan invaded the pitch brandishing Palestine’s flag. When Israeli forces killed five Palestinians late last month, Arabs in the stands chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, O Palestine.”

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The universal support overwhelms Saleh. “It has become our World Cup too. It’s a victory for our country,” he says.

The Palestinian cause has become one of the predominant themes of the World Cup, though FIFA prohibits the use of banners, flags and fliers that are political, offensive and discriminatory in nature. So it reads: “The promotion or announcement of political or religious messages or any other political or religious actions, inside or in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, by any means, is strictly prohibited before, during and after matches,” FIFA regulations state.

There was controversy over captains wearing rainbow arm-bands, and when some swore to wear them, FIFA threatened to slap yellow cards. An Iranian woman was dragged out of the stadium because she brandished anti-government banners.

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Among the Palestine supporters, you could spot a lot of children raising slogans and waving the flag. “We have to pass on our history and culture, teach them about our identity, when they are young so that they will continue fighting for our cause. It’s the way it is. Instead of bed-time stories my grandfather used to tell me stories of their hardship in fleeing our homeland,” says Mahmoud Odeh. He also nurses a secret dream. That his six-year-old son, Amal, becomes a footballer and plays for Palestine in the World Cup.

Incidentally, FIFA, the football governing body, has recognised the country and it played the qualifying rounds for World Cup qualification as well, though the United Nations is still to acknowledge the country as a full member.

“It’s unfortunate, but all we can do is fight for our rights and wait for the day when we are totally free. We are patient people, we will fight, and one day we will be able to return to our country,” says Odeh, whose grandparents had fled Yaffa in the 1950s.

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Odeh teaches physics in a public school, but most of them are into business, mostly restaurants and beauty salons. All of them have regular get-togethers and would invariably meet on the Nakba Day, May 15 to honour the Palestinians who had fled the country, a day after Israel celebrates its independence day.

“We are a close-knit group, we help each other a lot. We are peaceful and happy in Qatar, but we are still exiles, and we would like to settle down in the place we call our homeland,” says Saleh.

Perhaps, in no other World Cup has the cause of a country become so predominant. And Saleh, as do millions of Palestinians in exile, believe that their world will soon change. And on Saturday, when Morocco take on Portugal in the quarterfinals, expect a few Palestinian flags to fly alongside Morocco’s.

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 19:16 IST
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