DOHA (AFP) — The presence of Israeli teams at a youth handball tournament in Doha that started Thursday has sparked calls on social media for Qataris to withdraw their children from the competition.
Israel sent a boys’ team and a girls’ team to the Handball World School Championship, a biannual international tournament for students aged 15 to 18, played since the early 1970s.
It is not the first time Israeli athletes have competed in Qatar, but their participation has brought renewed scrutiny to Doha’s foreign policy eight months into a diplomatic crisis with its Arab neighbours.
On Twitter, users claiming to be Qataris accused Doha of trying to normalize relations with Israel.
“I ask all parents to withdraw their children and prevent them from participating in this normalization of relations,” one user wrote in Arabic.
“Now it is the time to speak to your children about Palestine.”
Another tweeted that the tournament was “recognition of an occupier.”
The Twitter account QAYON (Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalisation) for its part launched the hashtag: “Students of Qatar against normalization,” gaining coverage from Doha’s own Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite network.
The campaign even garnered praise from a prominent Emirati professor tweeting from the rival United Arab Emirates — where expressions of sympathy toward Qatar can be a punishable offence.
It is not known whether the tweets critical of Doha actually originated from Qatar.
‘Very, very difficult’
The presence of the Israeli handball players was always likely to be sensitive.
Earlier this year Israeli tennis player Dudi Sela took part in the Qatar Open, leading to demands on social media for an apology from Qatar’s tennis federation, whose president is Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
And in 2016, two Israeli competitors — Ariel Hilma and Sean Faiga — took part in a Doha volleyball tournament. Again, there was online fury, with one Twitter user calling on Qatari airport staff not to stamp the volleyball stars’ passports.
Ahead of the handball competition, one local newspaper listed every country participating, except for Israel.
The opening ceremony on Thursday will not feature an Israeli flag, according to the International School Sport Federation (ISF) organizers.
But there is no question of Israel not participating among the more than 20 nations who sent teams to Doha — the first non-European capital to host the tournament.
“These teams have qualified to participate,” said a media manager for the competition, pointing out that the same rule will apply when it comes to the World Cup, which Qatar is scheduled to host in 2022.
“This is a worldwide tournament,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Tom Christensen, a senior ISF official, told AFP that Israel was originally planning to send only one team, “but they decided four or five months ago to send a girls’ team” as well.
Qatar has a complex relationship with Israel.
The emirate provides sanctuary for the former Hamas leadership.
In the weeks following the start of the Gulf crisis between Qatar and its Arab neighbors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he wanted Al-Jazeera’s Israel offices closed down.
At the same time, Qatar has committed itself to welcoming Israel’s football team — and fans — should they qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
The Qatari leadership has to tread a fine line with its approach to Israel, said Christopher Davidson, a professor in Middle East politics at Durham University.
“The bulk of (public) opinion among Arab nationals is very different to Israel than their political elites,” he said.
“For them, to find out about Israeli sports teams coming is very, very difficult.”
But Qatar has another imperative: it cannot exclude any country from a sporting event with 2022 looming and the world watching.
Davidson said Qatar has little option.
“They have run the risk that countries like Israel may well turn up and there’s not much they can do about it, other than forfeit the right to host.”