Jerusalem old city 88.
(photo credit: )
At the PeacePlayers International final last Wednesday, the tension was high.
This wasn't entirely unexpected given that the basketball teams in action were comprised of a mix of Israeli and Palestinian teens.
But the stress had very little to do with the unlikely team make up - rather it came from each team's focus on the prize and genuine passion for the game.
PeacePlayers is a global body which uses basketball to reduce hostility between youngsters in troubled countries, from Northern Ireland to South Africa, Cyprus and beyond.
The organization's Jerusalem Peace Basketball League, partnered with the Municipality of Jerusalem for the past two years, has been running since 2005.
But very few of the 150 boys, aged between 12 and 16, joined the league out of a desire to interact and socialise with peers from across the barricade, says managing director Karen Doubilet.
"They're not joining because it's PeacePlayers or integrated, they come to play basketball and because we offer free equipment, uniforms, tournaments and trips. We're reaching kids from lower economic backgrounds," Doubilet tells The Jerusalem Post a few minutes after the Gilo-Esawiah Bulls triumph in the 12-14 year-old age bracket.
But regardless of whether integration is the initial motivation for the players, who all hail from East and West Jerusalem as well as Bethlehem, the outcome is gratifying.
The teams are split into an older bracket - four teams of 14-16 year olds - and a younger one - six teams of 12-14 year olds, and are all made up of mixed Arab and Jewish players.
One team's fusion is simply illustrated by its name - "Abu Shemesh" - an alliance between the Arab-Israeli town of Abu Ghosh and the Jewish town of Beit Shemesh.
Each group of players trains as a twinned team twice a month and as singular communities twice a week - led by Arab and Israeli coaching duos.
Although the youngsters don't immediately integrate with ease, one team, Beit Safafa-Katamon Lakers, is now solely coached by a Arab instructor, which Doubilet says is testament to the trust that has built up within the teams.
Sixteen-year-old Amir Abu Dalu, from Beit Safafa, played in the league for three years and is now a coach for PeacePlayers.
Abu Dalu acknowledges that he didn't join for the coexistence element.
"I joined a new school and there was a new team in the village. I just wanted to play basketball. At the beginning the team felt separate, but we soon started passing to each other and we learnt that there is no 'I' in team," he says.
Although tensions in his team eased after time, not all the Israeli and Arab contingents follow this pattern.
"I coach the eight-and nine-year-old girls from Beit Safafa but there is a bad relationship between them and the Gilo girls," Amir says.
Operations manager and co-director of the league, Michael Vaughan-Cherubin, says that because of the social stress that sometimes occurs within teams, PeacePlayers doesn't push the teens to socialise outside of the court.
"We've definitely seen an improvement in how they interact but friendships need to develop naturally," he notes.
However, there is some development in sight, he adds, as, "this is the first year I think we'll see them developing friendships outside [the game]."
"It's sometimes hard for them to communicate, but basketball is the language they use," explains Vaughan.
Courtside, it's not easy to differentiate which players come from which area as the passes glide fluidly and team members all show concern after injuries and occasional rule-breaking.
Mid-game pep talks are sometimes in English, with each coach occasionally translating in Hebrew and Arabic.
"Defense" bellows one; "this is our game" yells another before the team piled theirs hands together, shouting "one, two, three, PeacePlayers!"
Doubilet explains that although there are tensions apparent in all teams, the teens aren't usually aware of them because they're in a "safe and protected environment."
Liel Gidoni, 15, from Katamon in the capital, says: "I really enjoy it, it's a lot of fun. There haven't been many problems.
"We're just friends and it's really great. We mostly hang out during basketball and not outside but maybe in the future this will change."
"Basketball helps us work together," says 13-year-old Omer Alyan from Beit Safafa, whose cousin Haytham also plays on the same team.
This year, the Gilo-Esawiah Bulls earned the Jerusalem Peace League title for the 12-14 division and the Jerusalem School of Bethlehem beat the older teams for the accolade. The games all took place in the Hand in Hand school in the Pat neighborhood, a co-existence institution that "shares a mission" with PeacePlayers, according to Doubilet, and has partnered with the organisation for the first time this year.