19 April 2019

By Nadia Convery 

 

When Palestinians and Israelis cross paths, it is usually as opposing parties of the conflict that has claimed countless lives on both sides. As part of their broad range of Sport in the Service of Peace activities, the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation has been using the ‘Twinned Peace Sports Schools’ programme since 2002 to unite young people from different communities on the football pitch. In this safe space, beyond the boundaries of the conflict, these young people have the opportunity to tackle their previously held opinions of the other and, together, lead the way towards a more peaceful future. 

 

Recognising the shortcomings of politics to address the region’s challenges, Israel’s ninth President, Shimon Peres, sought a way to bridge the gap between politics and civil society: In 1996, The Peres Center for Peace & Innovation was born. Six years later, the ‘Twinned Peace Sports Schools’ programme was launched as part of the organisation’s efforts in Peace Education. It is now one of the longest running programmes in the region using sport as a peacebuilding tool, and is one of the Peres Center’s most enduring initiatives.  

 

The idea behind the ‘Twinned Peace Sports Schools’ programme was to use football to bring people from both “sides” together in one safe space, in an atmosphere of cooperation, trust and mutual respect. The football pitch was to serve as a place – beyond the usual locations where the conflict is played out – where those involved could find common ground on neutral territory. Playing together, they could become acquainted with the “other” and have the opportunity to change their opinions of each other. Football would also step in as a method of communication to overcome the language barrier between Arabic and Hebrew. 

 

What was a simple idea on paper, was a challenging endeavour on the pitch. It was clear that getting Israeli and Palestinian children and young people to play together on one team would not be possible from day one, it would be a process. Though, as the name of the programme suggests, Israeli and Palestinian communities are first selected and then “twinned” through an afterschool framework creating “sports schools”. In the initial phase, the groups remain in their community groups, training separately. These sessions are led by coaches instructed prior to the programme in its different components: methodologies, like ‘FairPlay’ and ‘football3’ and activities, such as teambuilding and peace games or fun language learning through football.  

 

The coaches meet the young players for weekly sessions in their community groups to pave the way for an encounter of both sides that will begin taking place on a monthly basis for the remainder of the year. The very first time the Israeli and Palestinian team buses roll up to the same pitch, it appears at first glance, as if ‘Team Palestine’ and ‘Team Israel’ will play against each other. Then the young footballers discover that they are all wearing the same football kit, and have been assigned to a team with a fifty-fifty ratio of Palestinian and Israeli players. 

 

The girls and boys participating in the programme come from different communities across the region. As Twinned Peace Sports Schools (TPSS) Project Manager, Leeon Boujo, explains: “We work on two levels: cross-border, i.e. choosing participants from the Israeli side and from the Palestinian side. The second level is ‘in-border’: Arab and Jewish communities within Israel.”  

 

Across these sectors, defining exactly which communities to work with is an intricate process based on a variety of factors. Leeon begins listing the questions the project team ponders accordingly: “Is it because the area is extremely tense? Is it because there is a very strong need and demand within the community? Is it because you want to continue a process with a community you have already worked with? Or have you achieved your goals there and should now move on to a different community?” 

 

As one of the very first coaches to get involved in the programme, Moshe Mosafi is a true TPSS veteran. Even after so many years and at age 70, the retired P.E. teacher is as engaged as ever. He trains a girls’ football team taking part in the programme in Sderot. The town is on the front line of the conflict and, consequently, a permanent fixture of the TPSS programme. Located less than a mile from Gaza, Sderot is one of the main targets of Quassam rocket attacks from the strip. “In regions such as this, the “other side” is perceived as very enemy-like,” Leeon comments, “The people are very scared.” Moshe Mosafi, who has lived in the area for over 25 years and witnessed the conflict unfold here, believes that the TPSS programme is needed today more than ever before, due to the increasingly precarious relations between Israelis and Palestinians: “Even during my army service, the conflict was not like it is today. There simply was not the same tension that there is today.” 

 

When working in such areas where the conflict has become an innate part of the population’s identity, programme activities can only be realised upon a strong foundation of trust. It is a tentative process. “At the beginning of the year, we hold a parents’ gathering,” Leeon explains, “So they can come a long and hear about what the project does. It’s not easy for people to accept this kind of work, especially when it involves their kids. The parents from the Israeli side know that their kids are going to meet Palestinians that they know just for being terrorists. ‘They want to kills us!’ the say.” Palestinian parents raise parallel concerns: “They are expected to send their kids into Israel,” Leeon continues, “which is something that is very difficult for them to do. ‘What if something happens, I can’t even reach my children,’ they say to us. So, you need a lot of trust.”  

 

Moshe Mosafi adds that the role of the parents is important beyond the programme’s outset: “We need to engage the parents to get them supporting their kids on this journey, and reinforcing the programme’s goals. Parental involvement significantly improves the outcomes of the programme.” It is difficult to imagine any parent escaping Mosafi’s enthusiasm for the programme, his passion for football and belief in its ability to bring people together. “I have loved football for as long as I can remember,” he smiles. “As a child, I used to go outside and my foot would immediately be reaching for the ball.” At the time, without money for a “real” football, he would improvise by stuffing cloth into his socks and shaping them into a sphere. Today, equipped with better tools to play the sport, his passion for it is unwavering: “Football is a game that all of us love. Football provides its own world, a place where we can interact completely separately from the outside world.” 

 

Tala Jaber, a 20-year-old Palestinian coach involved in the programme, agrees. She says that through the programme, not only her participants, but she herself has benefitted from meeting Israelis in a context beyond the conflict: “Since I live in the West Bank and do not often get the opportunity to interact with people from the ‘other side’, I found that the programme gave me the possibility to share my story, thoughts and beliefs without being scared or feeling hesitation.” 

 

The young woman from Jericho is one of the programme’s “Language Trainers” assigned to each of the groups of 15-20 participants along with a football trainer. Teaching their group basic words and phrases in either Arabic or Hebrew, is only one part of the Language Trainer’s role. “We have many different activities for the kids from the two sides, such as icebreakers, language activities, FairPlay and other fun activities,” Tala explains, “My role is to break the ice between the girls and let them feel safe enough to play with each other, especially giving them the opportunity to talk with one another, even though they speak two different languages. We believe that sport helps us to overcome the boundaries of language, it acts as a common nonverbal language for all.”  

 

Becoming involved in the programme, also meant overcoming other boundaries for Tala: “To be honest, my family was supportive of my involvement, but some friends of mine said the project was ‘normalising’ the conflict and said that it was in vain.” She adds that: “Living in between conflicting communities is very challenging and scary, even our interaction with Israelis in terms of doing such programmes for peace and coexistence can be dangerous if people who are against the idea of the interaction with the other side find out.” This, however, has only served to confirm her conviction that the programme is necessary and fuelled her resolve to continue: “This is why I believe our work is so important – we must change this reality,” adding, “I know that this is a long process and change cannot be built in a day, but the more people believe and support this process, the better our reality can be. I experience this every time I play with the girls or watch them playing: I see the hope of unity and coexistence.” 

 

20-year-old Atalya Gila, an Israeli coach from Tel Aviv, shares her experience of the process that turns opposing sides into one team: “I remember the first joint activity when the Palestinian girls and Israeli girls first met. They didn’t even want to hold each other’s hand. In our last joint activity, they hugged each other goodbye.”  

 

Atalya became part of the programme when she was searching for an alternative to military service: “In Israel at age 18 everybody must join the army, but there is also an alternative way to contribute to your country outside of the military system which is the national service. When looking for a place to volunteer for my service, I fortunately found the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.”  

 

Growing up in the north of Israel in a small village with just 50 families and only moving to Tel Aviv at the age of 16, she hadn’t previously encountered people from Palestinian backgrounds: “Although we live in the same geographical space, we don’t really have many opportunities to meet each other on a non-political platform.” 

 

The “platform” the programme offers, Gilad says, is one “where, for a few hours, we forget about all the internal wars and the conflicts and just focus on the game and on our new friends.” Here, the players meet each other, she adds, “just as kids who want to have fun.” This, in turn, will enable them to “grow into a world where they are not scared of the “other side” because, there, we are all on the same side.” 

 

A moment when Shahid Awatleh, an 11-year-old Palestinian programme participant from Jericho on the West Bank, felt most acutely that the group had become “one side”, was when “I got injured in one of the matches and all of the players stopped playing and came to help and they did their best to make me feel better.”  

 

Her fellow player, Leah Tamar Perets, an Israeli from Beit Shemesh, recounts her experience of how football enabled her group to become one team: “When you play together, you get to know each other closely. Football can connect us because we play on the same team and help each other succeed. We play together, but we also get to know each other. We get to find out the story of each girl, where she comes from and what she loves.” This, she says, leads to the eventual realisation that “we are very  similar.”  

 

The culmination of each activity year of the programme is the “Mini Mondial” tournament. All of the year’s participants from the Peres Center’s wider Sport in the Service of Peace progammes gather for a festive event to play together on mixed teams. They are joined by an illustrious crowd of spectators: ambassadors from around the world, local mayors, the region’s celebrities and famous footballers. “The event is to celebrate their journey over the past year and to show all of the boys and girls taking part, that they have the support from their idols and all corners of society,” Leeon explains.  

 

In the programme year 2018/2019, the Peres Center’s Sport in the Service of Peace programmes, including ‘Twinned Peace Sports Schools’, are engaging around 500 young people in communities in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Lod, Ramla, Beit Shemesh, Tel Sheva, Beer Sheva, Sderot, Jericho, Al-Nueime, Jerusalem, Kalanswa and Kfar Saba. Since the programme’s initiation, over 22,000 participants and some 60 trainers from more than 35 regions have been engaged through the programme. Every year, the Twinned Peace Sports Schools programme continues to introduce young Israelis and Palestinians to each other through football and keep the ball rolling towards the hope of a future on the same side. 

 

This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 10/April 2019. Read more stories from the field of football for good here.  

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