Qataris angered by Israeli presence at handball tournament

Israel sends athletes to youth handball tournament in Doha. Qataris urged to withdraw their children from the competition.

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Elad Benari,

Flag of Qatar
Flag of Qatar

The presence of Israeli teams at a youth handball tournament in Doha, Qatar, has sparked calls on social media for Qataris to withdraw their children from the competition, AFP reported on Thursday.

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 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, adding, "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 Normalization) for its part launched the hashtag: "Students of Qatar against normalization", gaining coverage from Doha's own Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite network.

It is not known whether the tweets critical of Doha actually originated from Qatar, noted AFP.

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.

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.

Thursday’s opening ceremony did 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.

"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 added.

Qatar does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel and provides sanctuary for some leaders of Hamas.

In 2015, Qatar’s Foreign Minister ruled out the possibility that his country would cooperate with Israel, accusing the Jewish state of “offending 1.5 billion Muslims” and of being provocative regarding the status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

At the same time, Qatar regularly sends aid into Gaza and a senior Qatari official acknowledged several weeks ago that cooperation with Israel is needed for this matter.

"When you want to do work in Gaza, you have to go through the Israelis. Without the help of Israel, nothing happens," Mohammed Al-Emadi, the head of Qatar's Gaza reconstruction committee, said.

"This is part of our effort, working very closely with Israel, very closely with everyone in Gaza, to prevent any more escalation and war. We want peace in the region, and to help the people," he added.

Qatar is not the only Arab country in which Israeli athletes encounter difficulties. In October, the Israeli team was prevented from wearing the Israeli flag or any other national emblems on their uniforms while participating in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament.

The restrictions on the Israelis continued despite the fact that the International Judo Federation called on the United Arab Emirates to treat Israeli athletes equally during the Grand Slam tournament.