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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some 160 Arab and Jewish 14-and 15-year-olds from the north of Israel came together last week for a new venture aimed at uniting the communities through the game of Streetball.
Over three days at the end of June the youngsters on the Streetball Hafla program learnt how to play this faster version of basketball and competed in a tournament featuring mixed teams.
The project, based at the WIZO Nahalal High School in the Jezreel Valley, was made possible by Las Vegas business man Michael Saltman and the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution.
"I wanted to bring Arabs and Jews to be together on teams, living and playing together," Saltman said. "Hafla means an informal party. If we combine that with music, food, and basketball it should be very exciting."
As well as learning the fundamentals of the sport, the teenagers also went through tolerance and anti-prejudice programming during the event run by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in partnership with the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sports.
ADL spokesman Arieh O'Sullivan said he believed the event could end up being groundbreaking
"It's more than just basketball and hanging out together, it's about meeting as equals and breaking down the walls of prejudice," he said.
"This camp, together with the education program, is geared to reduce stereotypes against each other, and we hope that this will evolve into a national program in the future."
O'Sullivan admitted there could be problems. "This is not scripted, some of these kids that are coming have hesitations, and we'll see how everything goes. There are seven Arab towns and seven Jewish towns, this event has equal representation," he said.
The children arrived at Nahalal on Tuesday afternoon, and got to register for the event with Tom Jankovic, one of the pioneers of Streetball in the United States.
"This is a fantastic event," Jankovic told The Jerusalem Post. "I've worked on over 200 Streetball events, and I'm most excited about this program. The kids are playing and living together. There's music, food, fun, and it's all about bringing them together."
Right after the kids registered, they all signed a contract of mutual respect, pledging to "do our best to create an environment of equality and to promote respect, understanding and trust on the basketball court, in our schools and in our communities."
Sport Ministry representative Nujedat Ghazi said he sees basketball as the optimal vehicle to promote peace and equality.
"This is a marvelous initiative. Sport is a bridge, and international language," he said. "The moment you look at them [the participants], you can't distinguish whether they're Jewish or Arab. You know that there's a distance, but give them an opportunity to know each other.
"They don't have to necessarily agree with each other, but they should recognize each other and become familiar with their opinions. Everyone supports a basketball team here like Maccabi [Tel Aviv] and they get to become familiar with each other's language and culture.
"Through this, we hope we can lead to a beginning of a change of attitudes towards each other."
From the start, the children were putting aside their differences and playing streetball in mixed teams.
Asaf Balas, a 14 year old Israeli from Ramat Yishai said he didn't care who he played with, as long as he got to play some basketball.
"This event is pretty cool, it seems like fun," he said. "I don't think that playing with Arabs is different, because we just came to play some ball, it doesn't matter who I play with. I'd like to have Israelis and Arabs playing for peace all over the country."
Over the course of the three day event, the youth met with Arab Israeli soccer players Abbas Suan and Walid Badir, former basketball star Nadav Henefeld and all time Israeli hoops great Boaz Yanai.
Mohammed Natour, a teen from Arrara, said he was excited about building a relationship with the Israelis.
"It's so exciting. It's a very important thing to gather Arabs and Jews together. This is all to make the relationships stronger. The way they form the teams will help everyone go together. It'd be cool to have Streetball all over Israel," he said.