Two Arab athletes at the ongoing Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games made headlines when they pulled out rather than participate alongside their Israeli counterparts. A third, however, was celebrated by the occupation state.
Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine withdrew rather than fight against Israel’s Tohar Butbul. Then Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool did the same thing when the draw also meant he had to face Butbul. However, on Friday, Saudi Arabian judoka Tahani Al-Qahtani went ahead and fought her Israeli counterpart Raz Hershko.
There had been many calls for Al-Qahtani to take the same stand as Nourine and Abdalrasool, but she was encouraged to compete with the Israeli athlete. She lost.
When he announced his withdrawal, Nourine made it clear that he did so in solidarity with Palestine, which remains under Israel’s brutal military occupation. “We worked a lot to reach the Olympics,” he explained, “but the Palestinian cause is bigger than all of this.”
Nourine knew that this would lead the International Judo Foundation (IJF) to punish him, but he went ahead anyway. “I was waiting for punishment from the IJF,” he told Al Jazeera TV. “I am sending a message to the world in solidarity with Palestine. I do not want the name of my country to be accompanied by the name of the Zionist state.”
His coach Amar Benikhlef was courageous enough to support the withdrawal. “We were not lucky with the draw,” he told the Algerian media. “We got an Israeli opponent and that’s why we had to retire. We made the right decision.”
The stances of these athletes are not necessarily in line with those of their governments. Algeria does not have ties with Israel, and nor does Saudi Arabia (officially, at least), but Sudan does. The government in Khartoum did not comment on Abdalrasool’s withdrawal. Liberal Saudi journalists, intellectuals and writers, who are considered to reflect the views of the Saudi government, encouraged the Saudi athlete to compete with the Israeli. Government-backed social media users also supported her participation, despite her defeat.
Away from the Olympics, Lebanese mixed martial arts fighter, Abdullah Miniato, announced that he will not compete in the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Youth World Championships in Bulgaria to avoid facing an Israeli opponent. Miniato and his coach Mohammad Al-Gharbi said that they are withdrawing after the draw placed the fighter against an Israeli.
“We refuse to recognise Israel or practice any form of normalisation,” they declared. “Palestine is a sacred issue,” added Al-Gharbi. “Our position stems from the principle that we do not deal with the enemy in any way.”Nourine and his coach were met by thousands of fans carrying Palestinian flags upon their return to Algeria. Their supporters chanted pro-Palestine and anti-Israel slogans. Abdalrasool’s reception in Sudan was low key, but he was hailed across the Arab world and beyond. Although he did not declare his pro-Palestine position openly, he claimed to have had pain in his shoulder. This has been known for years as an excuse used by Arab athletes not willing to appear alongside Israeli opponents.
These brave Arab athletes knew how to deal a blow to Israel, which they do not believe has any respect for sports, athletes and sporting ethics. They did not give the occupation state an opportunity to display its hypocrisy to the whole world in the Olympic arena. In taking the stand that they did, attention was focused on the Palestinian issue and Israeli crimes.
A sporting boycott is a brave step for Arab athletes to take. Moreover, it reflects the real Arab attitude towards Israel. Although Israeli officials have not spoken out about this, Israeli writers and media have.
“The International Olympic Committee must respond harshly and appropriately to such a brazen act because it is being made a fool of,” said Yair Katan in Ynet News.
On the contrary, it is Israel which is making a fool of the Olympic committee and other international sports bodies. Its conscription system means that most of Israel’s athletes are serving or former members of the Israel Defence Forces and will have been involved at some level in what have been described as war crimes and crimes against humanity. How does that fit in with the Olympic ideals?
Avishag Semberg, for example, won a bronze medal in taekwondo and is a serving IDF soldier based in the illegal settlement of Alon in the occupied West Bank. Israeli soldiers harass, shoot and kill Palestinians. Ethics and morality, contrary to what Israel claims, mean nothing to the IDF.
“The chief of staff expressed his appreciation for her impressive achievements at the Olympics and congratulated her on her victory,” tweeted the IDF. “Athlete, IDF Soldier, and now, Olympic medallist—is there anything she can’t do?”
Arab athletes are 100 per cent justified in taking their principled stand against Israelis. Why should they be in the same room as someone who has Palestinian blood on their hands?
Normalisation with Israel is not an option for such athletes and their supporters. That is where they part company with some of the Arab regimes; and why they are the real voice and attitude of the Arab people. The so-called Abraham Accords represent Arab Zionist regimes, not the Arab people. That is the reality, and these brave athletes know it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.