Unlike so much about Israel and Palestine, at least football is not a matter of life and death. Rather, it’s a cause for fresh hope.
Chelsea women’s football team has just returned from a pre-season trip to Israel, taking centre stage in a unique scheme that’s united more than 25,000 Arab and Jewish youngsters on the football pitch since 2002.
The children play in mixed teams, decide the rules and settle differences as a group. They learn each other’s language and culture, break down emotional barriers and – for the first time in their young lives – see each other as people rather than opponents.
The Twinned Peace Sport Schools initiative, backed by FIFA and the Israeli Football Association, is run by the Peres Centre For Peace, whose chairman Chemi Peres, son of the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, says 80 percent of participants develop a more positive perception of the ‘other’. He says: “Life here is full of dangers and difficulties, but It is possible to play together, live together and build a better future. We never lose hope.”
The greatest obstacles are scepticism that sport can offer any solutions and suspicion – most Israelis view Palestinians with deep mistrust and most Palestinians view any contact with Israelis as “gadr” [treason].
But keep your cynicism at bay until you’ve heard what it means to the eight to 12-year-olds taking part. Youngsters like Bayan Jalayta, a bright-eyed 11-year-old Palestinian girl, who’s travelled 30 miles on a bus arranged by the centre from the West Bank town of Jericho to the Shefayim national football ground near Tel Aviv for Chelsea’s training session. “I used to be afraid of them [Jews],” she tells me through an interpreter. “Then I met them and they were just like me, only with different clothing and language. I’ve learned about them and they’ve learned about me. We talk about how we feel and how we live. When we play the rest of the world doesn’t matter, at least for a while.”
Bayan’s friend Ramas Hege, also 11 and from Jericho, her long jet black hair in tight plaits, is eagerly eavesdropping and asks the translator to tell me: “This is something new and exciting in our lives. Being here feels important. I don’t like the anger between Israelis and Palestinians, but I do like this. It makes me feel we have things in common.” Aside from their time together on the football pitch, and an additional half-day monthly social get-together, the girls and their peers never interact – making the Peres Centre’s work uniquely important.
I’m suddenly surrounded by a crowd of yellow-bibbed pre-teens, keen to share their story. Among them is Ramas’ teammate Yael Bouchis, a Jewish girl from the nearby town of Bet Shemesh: “This is my favourite place to be,” she smiles. “I’ve made friends with children I would never meet anywhere else. People who change the way I look at life.”
The kids only go so far. When I ask (perhaps unfairly), ’What were you taught about Jews/Arabs growing up?’ and ‘Why has the Palestinian Authority boycotted the scheme?’ they all pass the ball. One child boldly answers, then has second thoughts and asks not to be named or quoted. Fair enough. Who knows the repercussions she feared. The anti-normalisation movement, dominant in the West Bank and endorsed by the Palestinian Authority, strictly opposes institutional collaboration of any kind.
Palestinian girls like Ramas and Bayan are from a generation with few opportunities to mix. Their only knowledge of ‘the other’ is soldiers and settlers. Equally, for Israelis like Yael, their sole experience of Palestinians is rocket attacks and terror tunnels. Both sides arrive with deep psychological baggage. That’s the project’s precarious starting point. Yet watching the kids interact with the Chelsea players it’s hard to know which is Arab and Jew. Star striker Ramona Bachmann is teaching keepie-uppies, defender Deanna Cooper leads running drills, centre back Anita Asante poses for selfies while Chelsea women’s charismatic manager Emma Hayes provides the piggy backs. The kids are in raptures.
As the cones and mini-goals are tidied away, Emma, who like her players has never been to the Middle East before, reflects on the session. “This was just about kids running around without any worries. We should let children be children and let them play without labels. We used to separately label the men’s and women’s teams at Chelsea – now they are both called ‘first teams’. It’s the same here. There are no Israeli or Palestinian sides, just a team. I hope we see the impact this is having the next time we come here.”
Anwan Zeidan, the project’s Palestinian coordinator since 2005, has brought his teenage daughter Zeina along. She’s witnessed firsthand the positive impact her father’s had on her generation. “The change is slow but it is happening,” Zeina proudly tells me in perfect English. “People who don’t live here have the wrong idea about Palestinian women. They think we are uneducated, marry young and have lots of children. The girls my father coaches learn about empowerment. That way they can grow up to be whatever they want to be.”
The beautiful game has a proud history of scoring where politics fails. Notable examples include France’s multicultural World Cup-winning team of 1998, which did much to ease racial tensions in the country and the Ivory Coast’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals, which was credited with helping to end the country’s civil war.
In central Africa, the 2011 Four Countries 4 Peace football tournament between youngsters from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo healed psychological wounds still raw from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Football is also countering Islamophobia here in Britain, with Liverpool fans paying Muslim star striker Mohamed Salah (who kneels in prayer when he scores) the ultimate compliment of his own chant: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too”.
At the Peres Centre in Jaffa, Tamar Hay-Sagiv from the peace education department sets out the scale of the challenge: “In theory this is about football, but it goes way beyond that. Jewish kids go to Jewish schools, Arab kids go to Arab schools. They never meet. We offer that chance. But there are so many misconceptions, stereotypes and religious, cultural and language barriers and deep mistrust to overcome. That where we come in.”
Tamar says nothing is possible without the mums and dads. “We arrange parent get-togethers once or twice a year. But I’ll be honest and say the motivation for meeting is generally higher among Palestinian parents who have a strong desire to get out of their community and general curiosity about the Israeli side. Ultimately, Palestinian and Israeli parents need to trust in the scheme. Sadly, in the current climate it takes courage and bravery to send your child to a scheme that has the word ‘peace’ in the title.”
She concludes: “There is no doubt that the everyday political reality challenges us and the participants. The educational process can see us move two steps forward and three steps back. So it’s crucial these are long-term projects rather than one-off sessions. We must convey optimism and hope to the children and parents because, in the end, this generation needs to understand it’s their responsibility to change and influence the future.”
My thoughts return to the training pitch an hour earlier, watching 11-year-old Ramas from Jericho score a goal to tie the match and seeing her Jewish teammates hug and high-five her. It was, in many ways, a wonderful equaliser.
First published by the Daily Telegraph.