A pitch for peace

A new initiative is using cricket to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together on common ground.

cricket 4 peace_521 (photo credit: Efrat Saar)
cricket 4 peace_521
(photo credit: Efrat Saar)
In March 2005, after decades of bitter hostilities, representatives of India and Pakistan met in the Punjabi town of Chandigarh for what became a historic encounter in the name of peace. It was not a high-level summit, nor internationally mediated peace talks. It was a simple cricket match between the two national sides.
The Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been embroiled in a bitter land dispute since the partition of India by the British in 1947. After four bloody wars and a nuclear arms race, the situation seemed intractable. So why should a simple game of cricket have any effect?
Yet according to a report in the Hindustan Times, Pakistanis visiting India to watch that cricket match were struck not by firebombs or fists, but by an outpouring of Indian hospitality.
“Indian families were competing with each other in inviting Pakistanis over to their place for dinner. The Pakistanis were having difficulty in deciding which invitation to accept,” the Times reported. “First we hated each other for over 50 years, and then all floodgates of emotions open.”
If cricket could unite ordinary Indians and Pakistanis for a few days in 2005, might it have a similar effect on Israelis and Palestinians?
One wintry afternoon in December, as gale-force winds, torrential rain and sandstorms forced many to stay indoors, a group of 60 Israeli and Palestinian children met in Beersheba to find out.
THE CHILDREN, aged five to 13, from the Negev towns of Yeroham and Dimona, and the Hebronarea villages of Yatta and Samua, met for the official launch of Cricket 4 Peace, a joint initiative of the Israel Cricket Association, the Peres Center for Peace and the Ramallah-based Palestinian NGO Al- Kuds Association for Democracy and Dialog.
“The initiative gives children the opportunity to learn the wonderful game of cricket and the added values of tolerance and peace,” Peres Center sports director Tami Hay said at the opening event.
Is Cricket 4 Peace a lofty exercise in idealism, or a practical way to provide a tiny patch of common ground where children from one of the world’s most divided regions can stand together?
For Stanley Perlman, the ICA’s South African-born chairman, it’s both: “We’re putting idealism into practice here,” he says.
Perlman describes how for the last few years the ICA has been using cricket to promote understanding and mutual cooperation via grassroots sports initiatives in communities across the country.
“The ICA is not just about cricket,” he emphasizes. “We are an organization that believes in using sport to develop social values.
“In 2000, we started a project called Hit Poverty 4 Six, which targeted children from poorer backgrounds in Dimona and Yeroham and taught them the game. The idea is to use cricket as a way to bring in poorer people, those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and boost self-esteem and self-confidence.”
Spurred by the positive results from Hit Poverty 4 Six, two years ago the ICA developed a joint initiative, Cross Border Cricket, with British NGO Cricket for Change.
Cross Border Cricket, which taught the game to mixed teams of Jewish and Beduin children in the Negev, was the brainchild of ICA coach George Sheader, who believed cricket could be a bridge-builder between Jews and Arabs.
According to Herschel Gutman, ICA’s national cricket development officer, cricket is a perfect sport for teaching values of peace and cooperation. Gutman, who made aliya from South Africa in 2009 to train Israel’s national cricket team and develop the sport at a community level, says cricket teaches mutual cooperation and teamwork; but most importantly, players learn patience, something Israelis often lack.
“Cricket needs patience, because the game is built around understanding and observing,” he says. “And because players are always involved in the game, but not always actively.”
DESPITE THIS, Gutman admits the ICA did have to adapt the sport to make it easier for Israeli children to play: “We made the game shorter so that there is more excitement for players and so that everyone can be involved.”
Cross Border Cricket attracted international praise, and won the ICA the prestigious Pepsi International Cricket Council’s Development Award last March. That success inspired the ICA to start talks with the Peres Center about expanding the program.
“Cross Border Cricket gave us the appetite for this partnership with the Peres Center to teach cricket to Palestinians,” Perlman says. “Our dream is to use the sport to help raise the standards of living and expectations of children in the occupied territories.”
The Peres Center for Peace was recently named 2010 Sports NGO of the Year by the international peace initiative L’Organisation pour la Paix par le Sport for its impressive roster of peace-related sports programs. The center’s initiatives in soccer, basketball, wheelchair basketball and ultimate Frisbee provide a rare chance for Israeli and Palestinian children to meet each other on neutral ground.
To run its programs in the Palestinian territories, the Peres Center has developed extensive connections with Palestinian NGOs and local sports trainers, youth leaders and schools.
Sports director Hay says the center is always on the lookout for new ways to expand and develop its sports programs, and was delighted when the ICA approached it about Cricket 4 Peace.
“We don’t limit ourselves to specific sports,” she says. “We’re always seeking professional partners to work with.”
The enter’s sports programs follow a similar pattern. Israeli children are matched with Palestinians of similar age, after which they play sport separately in their own schools. Each month, they meet for mixed matches – the Palestinians are brought here because Israelis are not permitted to travel to Palestinian Authoritycontrolled territory.
For both sides, but particularly for the Palestinian children, these monthly visits are one of the most important elements of the program. It is their first experience of Israel as a real country outside the TV images and negative stereotypes they have grown up with.
“There is a great deal of fear when the Palestinian children first come here,” says Hay. “They see Israel as the enemy, and they are scared.”
In addition to sport, during these joint meetings the children participate in structured games and learning sessions, which emphasize values of peace and tolerance. They also learn basic words in the other’s language. Though Arabic and Hebrew are closely related – making it comparatively easy for Hebrew speakers to learn Arabic, and vice versa – most Israelis drop the language after a few classes in high school, and many Palestinians either cannot or are reluctant to speak Hebrew.
Hay emphasizes that the Israeli and Palestinian adult sports trainers and teachers involved in the Peres Center’s sports programs also benefit from these joint sessions.
“The teachers and coaches get a lot out of the programs too. They meet each other, talk together and learn each other’s languages, like the children,” she says.
According to Hay, the sports initiatives target children from economically deprived areas direct-ly affected by the conflict.
“Some of the Palestinian kids in particular are from areas with high poverty,” she says. “We choose them because the programs can make the greatest difference to them.”
Kamal Ahmed Abu Altom, a Palestinian sports coach from Hebron, has worked with the Peres Center and Al-Kuds Center for Democracy and Dialog on soccer and Australian Rules football programs and is now coaching children on Cricket 4 Peace.
“Things were a bit hard at first because nobody had a clue how to play cricket,” he admits. But though the Palestinian children had never held a cricket bat when the program started, Abu Altom believes the initial learning curve was worth it – the Palestinians are raving about the game.
“Cricket is new, it’s beautiful and it’s a lot of fun for us,” says Ahmed Mahareeq, from Samua. “We heard about it from countries like Pakistan and India.”
Mahareeq is also delighted about the chance to visit Israel. “We got a wonderful reception from our friends in Israel,” he adds. “The Israelis were the opposite of what we thought; they are good friends and I’d like to invite them to visit us in Palestine, especially in Samua.”
Mahareeq’s discovery – that the Israelis he met are ordinary people, friends and not enemies to be feared – is what makes Cricket 4 Peace and the Peres Center’s other sports projects so worthwhile, says Abu Altom. Participants from both sides learn that the feared “other” is not so scary or different after all.
“When we bring the kids to meet each other, we don’t talk politics. We talk sport, a language everyone can understand,” he says. “Sport lets people meet and talk about the things they have in common – their favorite music, their hometown, their school. And then they go home and say to their parents, ‘Guess what? Today I met some Israeli kids and they were really cool.’ So their families hear that message too.”
It is possible to imagine Cricket 4 Peace being successful during periods of relative calm on both sides of the conflict, but what happens when things boil over into armed hostilities, like Operation Cast Lead? In fact, it has been at the low points of Israeli-Palestinian relations that organizers from both the Peres and Al-Kuds centers have seen the benefits of these sports programs, says Hay.
During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January 2009, the Peres Center considered putting its twinned schools soccer program on hold, as emotions ran high on both sides.
“Things were extremely tense,” recalls Hay. “We held joint talks with the kids and trainers in Sderot to see what they thought. We asked if we should stop the program.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians had the same answer. “They said no way. They said if we stop, what did we gain? Everyone was convinced that grassroots programs like this need to continue even though politics have failed,” Hay says.
“That’s why I can’t fail to be optimistic about Cricket 4 Peace, because I see the amazing things that we achieved with basketball and soccer.”
For those who think Hay’s optimism is unfounded, it’s worth considering that while that 2005 cricket match between India and Pakistan in Chandigarh didn’t put an end to the hostility between the two countries, it did make ordinary people on both sides reflect for a while on what, exactly, their countries were fighting about in their name.
And during that one cricket match, Indians and Pakistanis met as equals, shared the excitement of the sport – and, for a few days at least, stood together on a small patch of common ground.
In this lies the magic of Cricket 4 Peace: the simple gestures of friendship between children who were, up until the day they met on the cricket pitch, bitter enemies.
“That first meeting in Beersheba with the Israeli kids from Dimona and Yeroham, it was great,” Abu Altom concludes. “The kids talked to each other. They made friends. I saw them exchanging cell phone numbers, taking pictures, sharing things. That’s it. That’s what we want to continue.”