By Pablo Duer
Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov 10 (EFE).- The roughly 30,000 Israelis whose love of football trumps the dangers of traveling to a World Cup held in an Arab nation hostile to their own will have to do so by using so-called diplomatic layovers in third countries, all the while maintaining a low profile and relying on discreet consular services.
“Do they realize how mad we are to travel to an enemy country to see a football tournament?” a message in Hebrew reads on an Israeli Facebook page dedicated to the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
It is one of hundreds of similar comments in the group of 9,000 members, which was specifically set up to help Israelis navigate the tournament.
All this despite the fact Israel has not made an appearance at a World Cup since 1970.
NO HEBREW, NO FLAGS
Amit Kaminsky, a 25-year-old Tel Aviv resident, plans to travel to the Gulf state, although her family disapproves.
“It’s true that there will be people from Iran, from Saudi Arabia (whose authorities regard Israel as a regional foe) and from other Arab neighbors of Qatar. There will probably be a lot, but we will try to go without Jewish or Israeli symbols, not speak Hebrew in the street and keep a low profile,” she told Efe.
By using the Facebook page, Amit was not only able to network with other football fans heading to the World Cup but found useful information about how to act in Qatar, as well as how to stay safe and what to do in the case of an emergency, given that the Arab nation and Israel do not maintain formal diplomatic relations.
But while nothing has been officially confirmed by the Israeli foreign ministry, local media reported that consular services will be offered in Qatar discreetly and only for the duration of the competition.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) points out: “Qatar has connections with everyone, from the Taliban and Hamas and Iran, you name it. Qatar is a problematic country for Israel and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.”
“For Qatar, if this would be smooth and without any crisis that’s a success, and they don’t want any trouble, that’s their interest. Right now, it’s the first time in the Arab world, the first time in the Gulf, they paid a lot to host it so they are heavily invested in the success of this event.”
Israeli fans are accustomed to traveling to Europe to see some of the world’s best football in person, but the fact that the most prestigious competition in the sport is coming to the Middle East for the first time is a chance that many feel they cannot pass up.
“I think it’s because the Israelis really, really like football. Usually in our country we don’t have many achievements, we don’t qualify for the World Cup (but we) want to be a part of it, we want to be a part of the atmosphere and the festivities,” Yohai Stenzler, 40, tells Efe.
“We like to go to Europe to see big games, so when you have a World Cup in Qatar, which is pretty close to here, and you can go and you can see a few matches in the same location, it is a big opportunity for us,” he added.
CLOSE, BUT FAR
Qatar’s capital Doha might only be 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from Israel, but there are no direct flights between the countries. Instead, fans traveling to Qatar must connect via a third party nation such as Cyprus, Jordan, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates.
Given the tricky logistics, many Israeli fans have turned to travel agencies.
“I think half of the people prefer for a company to organize everything for them so that they can go with less headaches and concerns. They want to feel safe so they come to get reassurance, for example about things like their planes not to fly over Iran,” Gabriel Mizrahi, CEO of the travel agency Tik Tik, tells Efe.
“I think 30,000 Israelis will go to the tournament, it is a lot,” he said, adding that the agency had sold 1,000 travel and hospitality packages that include a ‘diplomatic’ stopover in Cyprus.
Of the roughly 30,000 Israelis traveling to the tournament, a figure that is cited by several local media outlets, an estimated 60% are Jewish while the remainder come from Israel’s Arab minority.
Mohamed Diab, a resident of the Arab city of Tamra in northern Israel says: “One of the main reasons for those going to Qatar is because it is an Arab country, which is really interesting and which we are prohibited from entering.”
Diab highlights the benefit of sharing a language, which he hopes will allow him to connect with the Qatari locals and fans who will travel from neighboring Arab states, something he previously experienced in Dubai following the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in 2020.
The chance at establishing links with other cultures during the World Cup is what led Israeli Shachar Cohen to start a line of keffiyehs, the traditional Arab head dress.
“We want the people to feel the atmosphere in the Middle East and we also want to give respect for the local culture that is hosting the tournament,” he says.
“The idea is to send all the people that go from Israel to the World Cup in Qatar with their keffiyeh, in order to send a message of unity.”
“These types of tournaments are a melting pot, a mix of many people from all over the world, all connected through sport, and that is something we want to be part of.”EFE