Israelis, Palestinians heading down under to play rough

Peres Center for Peace Australian Football League (AFL) team selected to compete in Melbourne.

football 88 (photo credit: )
football 88
(photo credit: )
One could hardly describe the field in front of us an Aussie rules footy pitch. In fact, it's a small, rain sodden soccer field, with rusted nets squatting on either end. The men climbing off motor cycles, and out of cars and vans to kit up appear to be barely a team and yet, in the wash of the floodlights they shake hands, kiss cheeks and slap each other's backs. With a curious mixture of awkward excitement, they make their way through the landmines of fresh mud and wet grass and dive into a bag of torpedo shaped footballs, talking softly in Arabic, Hebrew and English. One man, Fadi, is busy handing out chocolates to the players and staff, too excited to speak. His wife has just had a baby, and he is sharing his joy with his Palestinian and Israeli teammates. They are the Peres Center for Peace Australian Football League (AFL) team, a group of 18 to 30-something-year-old Palestinians and Israelis, selected from 100 to compete in the AFL International Cup in Melbourne in August. It is their sixth practice as a team, and, as they pass the ball around in a small group it becomes clear how difficult it is to tell them apart. Hailing from Ra'anana, Tulkarem, Yeruchum, Jericho, Beersheba, Kiryat Gat, East Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the players, many of whom have never seen an AFL match on television, let alone played, have six months to learn the distinctive Australian mixture of Rugby, Gaelic and American football. They will compete against 18 international teams, including the likes of Finland, China, India, Spain and Tonga in the 10-day competition from August 27 to September 6. Standing back from the action, and out of the way of the odd wayward kick, it soon becomes apparent this is more than an experiment in small scale co-existence. Danny Brill, 28, is the assistant coach and has been involved with the project since its conception. "It's a lofty idea," he says, "but what people have realized is that there is no politics involved. It's not about whose land it is, or who gets what, it's people coming together to play sport, which I think is something in which politics shouldn't be involved." He explains the origins of the Peres Peace AFL team while speeding down the highway towards training at Kibbutz Netivah Lamed Hey. AFL in Israel has a very amateur history, with Australian ex-pats in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem getting together to play socially, Brill says. In April 2007 James Demetriou, brother of the Chief executive of AFL Australia, Andrew Demetriou, was in Israel and was introduced to the Peres Peace Center. The Center's suggestion to send a joint Israeli and Palestinian AFL team to compete in the AFL International Cup excited both the Israeli and Australian communities, and the idea was born. "I called [the Peres Center for Peace] and said 'I'd love to get involved', and they said, 'everybody is in a stir, let's get this started,'" Brill recalls. Brill made aliyah in 2002 from Melbourne, and during his early twenties started up an inter-youth movement AFL competition. When it comes to talk of politics and the conflict, he stops short. "I've always been a big believer in sports being a very constructive medium to be used in any kind of conflict resolution," he says. "You have to play with a team to get towards that same goal which has nothing to do with politics or religion. It's just sport." The same sentiment is echoed by the AFL Talent and International Manager, Kevin Sheehan, who flew to Israel to train with the team last week. "It just sat comfortably with us because that's the way we see sport - as the great leveler. You learn about cooperation and teamwork, playing by the rules and that great discipline is a wonderful lesson to be learned for life," he says. One team member, Yonatan Bellik is the son of Australian immigrants to Israel, and is the youngest player at age 18. Playing in the tournament is one of the last things he will do before he is drafted into the IDF, and he says the chance to play AFL is "a dream come true." "I have met Arabs [in the past], but not Palestinians so it's a first [for me]. I never thought of them as bad or enemies - these guys are good people, it will only improve my thoughts [about Palestinians]," he says during a break in training. Shai, 30, from Tel Aviv agrees. "I wanted to be involved in a team sport and try something different like AFL," he says. "[There is] no difference between playing with Israelis, Palestinians or Australians." This is the aim of the Peres Center. Roni Kresner, director of information and project development, insists the chance to compete is a means to an end. "I know some of the guys are very interested in winning and the influence of the game. Yes, I hope they win and play with dignity, but I am more concerned with team work and group dynamics that they can come together and get to know each other," she says. Kamal, a 23 year old Palestinian from Tulkarem got involved through a friend who told him about the team. He says he is excited by the opportunity to travel to Australia and play with the team. "AFL is a really fun sport," he says during the practice session. "I wanted to give it a try ... to learn to play a new sport and meet new, interesting people." "If people are interested in being a part of peace activities [like this one]," Kresner says, "we don't care if they come from Hamas families or Fatah families or Israeli left or right wing families. "In fact we encourage people from Hamas to take part - because those are the kind of people that would benefit most from this kind of project." Brill agrees, and says the game has potential not only as a national sport, but also to build bridges between the two peoples. "I'd love to be able to start AFL in Israel, use it as a spring board to build something. It has a lot to offer," he says. "I think we all want to make sure that this is a professional project that goes on [beyond the Cup]." As an even greater boost to the project it was announced last week that former Hawthorn Football Club player Robert "Dipper" Dipierdomenico will coach the team during the tournament in Australia.