How they play the game

Can a high-grade new soccer field promote peace between Arab and Jewish children?

soccer ball 88 (photo credit: )
soccer ball 88
(photo credit: )
A brand new synthetic soccer field has been put down in the east Jerusalem village of Issawiya, just south of the Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus. The unique field, the first of its kind in east Jerusalem or the West Bank, is sponsored by the Korean Government in conjunction with the Peres Center for Peace, in order to give local Palestinian youngsters the opportunity to practice their ball skills in all weather, day or night. During the inaugural ceremony, held earlier this month, His Excellency Kyungtark Park, Korean Ambassador to Israel, and Dr Ron Pundak, Director of the Peres Center and Founder of the "Twinned Peace Soccer School" project in Issawiya, both expressed their hope that the $400,000 field would also promote further joint Israeli-Palestinian games and activities. "Soccer enables children to get to know each other," Park told In Jerusalem. "We took on this project to build a professional soccer field so that Israeli and Palestinian children will play on it together and move towards reconciliation between the nations." The impressive field, which took just over three months to complete, is nearly full-size and local schoolchildren were clearly delighted to play on the fancy new turf instead of the derelict asphalt playground they had used until now. Ma'an Obed, 12, dressed in his red and white soccer uniform, was especially excited. "It's really beautiful and we're very lucky to have it," he said. Saying that the children from Issawiya often competed against Israeli children, he added, "Sometimes we win and sometimes they do." Khader Abid, former captain of the Palestinian National soccer team and now principal of the Issawiya boys school, was also delighted that his students were being given a realistic chance of following in his footsteps. A spokesperson for Ambassador Park told In Jerusalem that the Issawiya project is part of Korea's Official Development Assistance (ODA) which provides monetary help, infrastructure, emergency assistance and public facilities to underdeveloped countries. "Palestine," the spokesman said, "is one of the authorities we are assisting, particularly in the fields of education and sport." Pundak added that the Twinned Peace Soccer School project, in which Issawiya participates, is part of a comprehensive approach. The Peres Center, he said, has established soccer schools for extracurricular activities in numerous communities throughout Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including Hebron, Tulkarm, Sderot, Kiryat Shmona and Yeroham, as well as basketball schools in Beit Safafa, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Ekron. "These programs benefit over 2,000 Palestinian and Israeli children who also receive sports uniforms and equipment," Pundak added. As recently reported in In Jerusalem (Can trust be rebuilt? Dec. 5), last month, residents of Issawiya burned tires, threw firebombs and stoned the police after a policeman shot and killed an unarmed resident of the village. (According to a police spokesman, the officer in question will be charged with manslaughter.) Over the years, Issawiya has maintained a quiet, if occasionally tense, relationship with the surrounding Jewish neighborhoods. Following the events of last month, the area is quiet again, but Issawiya's residents complain bitterly over what they view as the municipality's neglect and unequal investment in their neighborhood. Acknowledging that swank, gleaming enclosure contrasts incongruously with the lack of development in Issawiya and its general surroundings, Pundak nevertheless maintained that the investment would not have been better-spent on infra-structure development. "The Peres Center is an NGO [Non Governmental Organization] that is not involved in national or regional politics. We recognize, though, that sport is a vehicle for change which can lead to coordination and cooperation and through our various projects we hope to encourage the government to do what it should have been doing in the first place." Yet given the circumstances, can sport really advance the cause of peace in the Middle East? The official Olympic website declares that the goal of the world sports movement is "to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating the youth through sport practiced without any discrimination of any kind in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play." Yet the games have often been used to promote political purposes, as the games in Munich in 1939 and then again in 1972 have proven. And while the Soccer World Cup and the Olympics do create a transient world-wide audience-community, the highly competitive nature of the games often encourages deep divisions rather than general harmony. There have, of course, been some exceptional events, such as that depicted in the recent First World War movie Merry Christmas, where enemy soldiers spontaneously ceased firing on each other in order to participate in a game of soccer - although the ephemeral detente created by the trench match was soon shattered by the resumption of the shooting. Closer to home, al-Jazeera reported Gaza Authorities criticized and even threatened sanctions against Palestinians who participated in a joint Israeli-Palestinian soccer team, sponsored by the Peres Center, that competed in last month's Barcelona Peace Match. But Michal Eldar, a spokeswoman for the Peres Center, said that the majority of players come from the West Bank, and not from Gaza. In fact, concluded Eldar, "The players involvement game was both fully and enthusiastically supported by the West Bank Football Association, and consequently we feel that this is a project that has the right backing to help it succeed,"