BEIRUT (AP) — With the World Cup in faraway Brazil coming at a time of unprecedented sectarian violence and soaring tension in the Middle East, some Arab football fans have been reduced to watching matches in secret or even — and this is where it gets complicated — on a TV channel owned by Israel.
Since the World Cup kicked off three weeks ago, Sunni Muslim extremists have seized territory in Iraq and Syria and declared an Islamic state. Lebanon has been hit by a spate of suicide bombings. Israelis and Palestinians were pushed to full conflict after the murders of four teenagers. Egypt's political divide grew wider as hundreds of people charged with supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood group were convicted of terrorism-related crimes — including three journalists for Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera network.
Many accuse the Doha-based network of editorial bias in favor of the now banned Islamic group in Egypt and of Sunni insurgents fighting Shiite-dominated governments in Syria and Iraq.
Qatar's media conglomerate owns broadcasting rights to the World Cup in the Middle East, charging viewers from $110 to $320 for a three-month subscription that includes the 64 World Cup matches — a tournament that should have been a welcome escape for millions of football fans.
Most fans can't afford to pay for the satellite broadcasts of the World Cup, which was previously shown around the region on state free-to-air channels. Some Egyptians refuse to subscribe to Qatar's channel for political reasons.
Watching a recent match in a cafe in downtown Cairo, 21-year-old student Mohammed Mostafa said his family is boycotting Al-Jazeera and instead tunes in to an Israeli channel that has been broadcasting the World Cup for free, with commentary in Hebrew — a foreign language to most Arabs.
"My parents refuse to give money to the Brotherhood," Mostafa explained.
That kind of attitude has outraged officials in Egypt, where state media has lashed out at Israel by saying it has opportunistically barged into the Arab broadcasting market.
"Israeli media penetration into the Arab community is more devastating than its missiles," said Mohammed Shabana, the director of Egypt's Sports Writers Association. But he also criticized Qatar, saying the oil-rich Gulf state should have dismantled Israel's plot to win over Egyptian fans, and offered a subsidized deal to the Cairo government that would air the World Cup to its citizens for free.
Israel "is our biggest enemy," Shabana said. "If the only way (to avoid Israel's channel) is to give money to Qatar, then we should do it."
For Raaouf Sobhy, a cafe owner in Cairo's upscale Heliopolis district, choosing which channel to watch was a simple decision.
"I hate Qatar more than Israel," Sobhy said. "I don't think Israel is harming us as much as Qatar."
In south Lebanon near the frontier with Israel, some turn on the Israeli broadcast, even though Israeli TV channels have been banned since 2000 when Israel withdrew its troops following 18 years of occupation. Israel's arch enemy, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, dominates south Lebanon and its fighters have fought on the Syrian government side. Qatar is not popular there, though, because of its support for Sunni rebels in Syria.