Israeli, Palestinian youth play ball

Some of the Israeli and Palestinian youngsters who participated in the Twinned Sports Schools program.Ahmed Sabri will always remember the day he first played soccer with Israelis his age. “I’m proud of my new uniform, and that I’m as good …

Some of the Israeli and Palestinian youngsters who participated in the Twinned Sports Schools program.Ahmed Sabri will always remember the day he first played soccer with Israelis his age. “I’m proud of my new uniform, and that I’m as good as the Israeli boys,” the 13-year-old from the Sur Bahir Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem says.

Sabri is one of over 200 Palestinian and Israeli boys aged 9-15 that participated last week at a bilingual soccer training session in Israel, culminating in games between mixed teams.

It’s difficult to tell who is an Israeli and who a Palestinian, as the youngsters, in their fresh uniforms, swarm over the pristine Kiryat Ekron soccer field just outside the Israeli city of Rehovot.

Muhamad Amin-Halaf, 12, from Issawiya in east Jerusalem supports Spanish champions Real Madrid. Kim Hazan, 11, from the Israeli town Bnei Ayish roots for England’s Manchester United.

“They’re just like us, only they speak a different language,” Hazan tells ISRAEL21c during a break between games. “We found it difficult to talk, which is a shame because some of them are good players.”

“Children this age don’t want to hear politics – just let them play together,” says Kim’s proud soccer dad Avraham Hazan as he distributes sandwiches and cola to the hungry youngsters. “Inshallah [with God's help], something good will come out of this.”

Sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace NGO, the Twinned Sports Schools program kicked off in 2002 with a successful pilot pairing of the Issawiya and Sderot, an Israeli development town. Eight more soccer and four girls’ basketball ‘schools’ were created in economically weak Israeli and Palestinian communities this academic year, supported by Right to Play, Development Cooperation Ireland, the Pratt Foundation and the Laureus Sports For Good Foundation.

As well as nurturing the youngsters’ sporting aspirations, the schools provide supplementary tutoring in math, English, Hebrew for Palestinians and Arabic for Israelis.

According to Gal Peled, who coordinated the event for the Peres Center, the goal is to focus the youngsters on the aspects of life that they share.

“By working together, the children realize how much they have in common rather than focusing on their differences. Indeed, once the youngsters have been divided into their joint teams, it is difficult to identify who is Palestinian or Israeli. There is no doubt that all of them share common goals and aspirations,” says Peled.

The budding athletes come together for joint activities once a month, notwithstanding a fluctuating security environment. One training session in Sderot was held only 20 minutes after Kassam missiles launched from nearby Gaza landed close to the town’s soccer field.

Last week, the Ben Zvi High School gym near the Kiryat Ekron soccer ground resonates with excited schoolgirl chatter in Hebrew and Arabic, as players from Issawiya and other Jerusalem-area villages, Jericho and Kiryat Ekron mingled. Former national Israeli basketball captain Aluma Goren blows her whistle to end another five-minute game between mixed Israeli-Palestinian teams. Some 80 girls eagerly await their turn in the rotating lineups.

Racheli Kadosh brandishes a graze along her forearm as she walks off court. “It happened in a tussle for a high ball with an Arab girl. I didn’t say anything – it’s part of the game,” shrugs the 14 year-old from Ofakim.

“We communicate with hand signals on the court,” explains her classmate, Lian Abargil. “The Arab girls are about the same standard as us – and they’re no bigger than we are.”

“Some of our parents were worried when they heard that we train with Arab girls. They wanted to know exactly who they are, but eventually all agreed to let us come,” says Abargil.

According to Peleg, the teams that are formed always consist of mixed groups of Israelis and Palestinians.

“The joint activities do not pit the Palestinians against the Israelis, but instead allow them to play in joint teams in order to meet children from the ‘other side.’ Such mixed teams have been valuable in teaching children about teamwork. They have realized that the team that achieves the highest level of cooperation will succeed,” he says.

While the combined basketball practices offer a chance to break the ice, they are not long enough to build friendships, says Rasan Rhabba, 15, from Issawiya, who unsuccessfully tries MTV-inspired English to penetrate her Israeli peers’ shyness.

“My parents are very happy that I am meeting other girls my age. I’m learning how to play basketball, and having fun,” she says.

Meital Abutbul, 11, from Sderot is the tallest girl in her school. “I’ve learned a few new basketball tricks and got to know two girls from East Jerusalem today. I’ll visit them one day – if my parents will allow me.”

Adolf Ogi, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General and former President of Switzerland, addresses the budding athletes, via Hebrew and Arabic interpreters. “Sport is a great school in life. From sport you learn solidarity, discipline, team spirit, how to win and how to lose. You are an example for the whole world,” he says to a crescendo of cheers.

Twenty of the expected 60 Arab participants from east Jerusalem failed to turn up due to their parents’ objections, says schoolteacher Amira Jaber as the Palestinian youngsters board busses home.

“This was the first time many of them had met Israeli children their age. It’s not easy for the kids to play with Israelis. The language barrier came between them – but sport is a common language. It’s good for them to feel that events can move in a positive direction.”

“I wonder how long it will take before Israeli parents will send their children to us without fear. We will all have to be patient – it will take time before the situation returns to normal,” sighs Jaber.