PITCH PERFECT

Qatar World Cup draws thousands of Israelis, direct flights or not

With talks down to the wire between countries that don’t have diplomatic ties, Israelis are making their own arrangements to bridge the gulf

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

An image of Uruguay's Luis Suarez is seen at dusk on a building ahead of the Qatar 2022 soccer World Cup

Israel has no diplomatic ties with Qatar, and its national soccer team didn’t qualify for the 2022 World Cup. That won’t stop thousands of Israel fans from pouring into the oil-rich Gulf state this week to join the frenzied crowds at the most-watched sporting event on earth.

It wasn’t until 10 days before the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador, set for Nov. 20, that world soccer’s ruling body, known as FIFA, worked out a plan for direct flights between Israel and Qatar that satisfied political and security leaders in both countries. By then, most Israelis with tickets to the nearly monthlong tournament had booked flights with layovers in third countries.

While Israelis are barred by statute from entry into Qatar, the country agreed to honor Israeli passports as a condition for the highly sought rights to host the World Cup. Still, many Israelis, generally known for their boisterous character, say they’ll try to keep things low-key at the games.

“The vibe is to go and enjoy the football and not try to stand out or anything,” Elon Grubman, a 32-year-old Israeli born in Brazil, told The Circuit.

When FIFA finally announced the agreement for direct charter flights on Nov. 10, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed the move as “great news for football fans and for all Israelis,” adding that it was the result of “hard work over the course of many months.” Israel will also be allowed to open a temporary consular office to assist fans with lost passports and medical emergencies.

In expressing his “delight” at solving the visa problem, FIFA President Gianni Infantino also announced that the deal meant “Israelis and Palestinians will be able to fly together and enjoy football together.” Given the tight security protocols that Israel has practiced for decades in restricting Palestinian travelers through Ben Gurion International Airport, it’s unclear whether such joint flights will materialize. Like the Israelis, though, most Palestinians didn’t wait to book their flights.

Walid Jouda, a resident of the Gaza Strip, was standing in line yesterday afternoon at the heavily guarded southern border of the coastal enclave, waiting for permission to enter Egypt and fly to Doha through Cairo.

“I’m a football addict so seeing the matches live in Qatar is going to be amazing,” said Jouda, 35, an information technology administrator for a United Nations agency in Gaza City,  who is rooting for Argentina. “Maybe one day Palestine will qualify for the World Cup, but that’s still a dream.”

Though Israel and Qatar have never established full diplomatic ties, they have worked together publicly for more than two decades. In the late 1990s, Israel operated a trade liaison office in Doha until tensions between Israelis and Palestinians led Qatar to shut it down. Israel allows Qatari officials to travel through its territory and enter the Gaza Strip, where they have for years mediated between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs the territory.

Tickets to the matches and accommodation in Qatar or neighboring countries don’t come cheap. Matan Peled, a manager at Israel’s ISSTA travel agency, said three-night packages that include two soccer matches were selling for $2,000 to $3,500 a person, depending on the hotel. One advantage to Qatar’s small size, he said, is the close proximity of all the new stadiums that were built for the World Cup.

“It’s like having eight stadiums in Tel Aviv,” Peled told The Circuit. “All the teams are in the same area, all the fan zones are close to one another.”

With no Israeli team in the tournament, 42-year-old Ronen Rotem said he doesn’t care much who wins. “I’ve never been to a football match in my life,” he said. “I’m only going because it’s a unique opportunity to visit Qatar.”

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