Forget speeches, soccer paves the path to peace

Hapoel Tel Aviv and European Union-sponsored program makes friends between Israelis and Palestinian kids.

Less than 24 hours had passed since Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu called for "two peoples living truly, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect" when a group of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinian children put their differences behind them to play on mixed teams in a European Union-sponsored soccer event at the Wingate Institute on Monday. "Ahmed, Ahmed, I'm open in the corner," yelled the skullcap-wearing youngster speeding side by side down the field with his Palestinian teammate. Without hesitation, the ball made it to the young Jew's feet, and he proceeded to neatly place the ball past the small Arab goalkeeper into the right corner of the net. The goal-scoring team burst into celebration - everyone hugging the closest teammate. This was just one of many moving scenes where Palestinian and Jewish children joined together in celebration of a goal, like longtime friends rather than enemies on Monday. The friendly relations between the children weren't an instant miracle. For years now, these youngsters have been participating in programs and activities run by the Education and Social Project, a non-profit NGO along with Hapoel Tel-Aviv. More than 25,000 children, from first through eighth grade, from Israel, the West Bank, and even Jordan meet twice weekly with Israeli and Palestinian coaches and educators, mostly university students. One meeting is devoted to soccer, the other for educational activities. "They talk about the value of teamwork in the classroom, then they see the value on the field," explained Brian Gonzales, the consultant for development of resources and partnership for the program. Avraham Burg, director of the Education and Social Project, put the program into simple terms: "Get to know the other; be a better student; use sports as social mobilizer." The European Union sponsored Monday's events through a program called "Football, Our Common Ground," while the Educational and Social Project organized and ran the event. Israeli squads of Jewish and Arab children, usually coming from neighboring villages, hold practices together all over the country every week. Palestinian children can only meet their teammates two to three times a year because they are rarely able to get permission to come into Israel. This was the second time this year the Palestinian children met their Jewish teammates and opponents, yet already relations between them had become friendly. "I was hesitant at first," said 15-year-old Muhammad Hlel from Susiya, south of Hebron, who was sunburned from earlier that morning when the Palestinian children enjoyed Kibbutz Shefayim's water park. "But once we started playing together it worked out." Hlel added that "there is a big change" in how he sees Jews. He now keeps in touch with his Jewish friends by phone and he would like to befriend more in the future. Muhammad Hassan, another 15-year-old Palestinian player from Twainey, another village south of Hebron, sat with his Palestinian friends (also sunburned) in between games. He wore a Barcelona jersey, and spoke with a serious face but gentle tone. Hassan said he was very excited and interested to play with Jews. "I didn't like them before, but once I played with them it was totally different," he said. "They were good people in general." Hassan's friends sat around him in silent agreement. During the closing ceremonies, Sol Gross, an 11-year-old from Kibbutz Evron in the North, sat in a circle with his Jewish friends. He said, "It was fun playing with the Palestinians. They were like me. It was good from the beginning until the end." Ma'ayan, from Kibbutz Shomrot, cutting in front of his friend, added his own experience. "It was interesting. It was a little hard at first but in the end it was good. I will continue to be good friends with [the Palestinians]," he said. Moving back in front of his friend, Sol exclaimed excitedly, "You can trust them!" The highlight of the games wasn't a spectacular goal or the trophies, which went to all participants, said Clive Lessem, one of the developers of the program. Even though the Palestinian children had to leave before trophies were handed out in order to get through the checkpoints in time, Lessem said he was most impressed by the frequent moments when children speedily extended hands to those they knocked down, receiving a hand, smile, and pat on the back in return. "That's the real story," said Lessem. "That's what this is all about."