Cheers and calls for Arab solidarity as Gaza watches Qatar win the Asian Cup
Waving flags, singing songs and cheering three goals, fans of the Qatari football team were jubilant on Friday as the team claimed a 3-1 victory over Japan in the Asian Cup final.
These fans, however, were not in Doha but in Gaza City, 1,800km away from the Qatari capital.
On Friday, Palestinians gathered at a tourist complex on a beach in the Gaza Strip, where the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports in Palestine held an event screening the match.
In large part drawn by a sense of Arab solidarity, the football fans also flocked to the screening out of gratitude for the emirate’s support for Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave.
Qatar pledged in November to send $15m to the Gaza Strip as part of an agreement between Israel and the Hamas movement, the de facto ruling party in the small Palestinian territory that has been under an Israeli-imposed blockade for 11 years.
Though the entry of that cash has had its hiccups, with Israel refusing its entry earlier this month, it has helped keep hundreds of thousands of families afloat.
Abdel Salam Haniyeh, a member of the council who called for Palestinians to come and support the Qatari team, noted that Qatar was the state most supportive of sports in Gaza.
"Following the recent Israeli war on Gaza [in 2014], the Israeli occupation destroyed many sports facilities and playgrounds in Gaza,” he told Middle East Eye.
Haniyeh called Qatar "the first Arab and international country to support the sports sector and sports facilities" in Gaza, noting its financial support for the Palestine International Stadium in Gaza, the main stadium in the Gaza Strip, reportedly amounting to more than $2m.
“And that is why we gather today in the Shlihat complex."
The Qatari football team’s exploits in the Asian Cup have made international headlines, in no small part thanks to the competition being held in the United Arab Emirates, one of four neighbouring countries blockading the emirate.
On the way to the final, Qatar’s footballers defeated the UAE and fellow blockading state Saudi Arabia.
And though that may have added fuel to the Gulf dispute fire, Haniyeh said he hoped the states could come to a resolution and keep sports out of politics.
“We love all Arab countries. We do not know politics in sports. We hope to see a united Arab Gulf. This is our duty," he said.
Ahmed Hijazi came to the event with his four brothers to support the Qatari team. He said he was appalled when UAE fans lashed out at the Qatari players during Tuesday’s semifinal.
"I was upset that the UAE fans were throwing bottles and shoes at the Qatari team. No matter what, we are a single Arab nation,” Hijazi said.
“I will encourage the UAE because we love all Arabs in Gaza. We love Qataris who support us and we love them too because they are Arabs."
A number of Gaza’s athletes flocked to the screening, as well as members of the Qatari media, who cheered and gasped as the game ebbed and flowed.
Every time the Japanese players approached the Qatari goal, supporters raised their arms and watched the game through their fingers.
Mueen Hassouna, a sports journalist at Palestinian news agency Safa, said Qatari cash wasn’t behind the Palestinians’ support.
"Some Arabs see Qatar offering Gaza money and think that's why we support them, but they do not know that Gazans love sport and see it as an escape from the worries, politics and difficult economic conditions,” he told MEE.
“Today they are two things. This is an Arab team and we play in the name of an Arab nation. We love Qatar and all those who support us, and this is in a humanitarian and duty-free way.”
From the referee’s first whistle, the crowd in Gaza bellowed in support for the Qatari team.
Almoez Ali’s stunning 12th-minute overhead kick got pulses racing, with Abdulaziz Hatem doubling their joy in the 27th minute.
Though Japan, the pre-match favourites, furrowed some eyebrows with a 69th minute goal, Akram Afif settled matters and Palestinian nerves with a late penalty to make it 3-1.
Qatar’s supporters flooded out onto the streets waving flags.
"We won this victory. We celebrate as Muslim Arab fans who love Palestine and love Gaza. For 90 minutes we had our hearts with them,” fan Sami Nabil said.
“I know that some Gulf countries will not rejoice in Qatar's victory, but I say to them that you won with an Arab team today.
“Instead of looking at political differences, football offers love to all. Leave politics to the side.”