It's how you play the game

Football Village of Hope brings Israeli and Palestinian kids together.

Israel Palestinian football 248.88 (photo credit: Ron Friedman )
Israel Palestinian football 248.88
(photo credit: Ron Friedman )
The word "goal" means the same thing whether you live in Kiryat Gat, Tulkarm or Dublin. Taking advantage of the international language of sports, the organizers of the Football Village of Hope set out to raise the banner of coexistence, using soccer as the focal point. On Thursday afternoon, the children participating in this year's joint Israeli-Palestinian summer camp played their final game of the week, against their counselors. Though they were thoroughly beaten, their spirits weren't dampened. All week long they'd been taught that the only thing that's really important, in soccer and in life, is to show up on the pitch and do their best. The Football Village of Peace, which took place over the last week in the Meir Shefeya youth village near Zichron Ya'acov and hosted 50 children from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is the brainchild of Ophir Zardok. It grew out of a final project that he wrote for his graduate studies. Zardok was the first Israeli to take part in a postgraduate sports executive program run by the international football association FIFA, which trains people to manage sports clubs. "It turned out to be a 100-page academic research paper, which included a complete business plan," said Zardok. The idea started taking shape more concretely when Zardok met with former Ireland football association president Milo Corcoran. "I was managing the Irish team Drogheda United when I learned about the Setanta Cup, a football tournament featuring teams from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland," said Zardok. "I liked the idea, and I thought that if football can bring everybody together in Ireland, why can't it do the same in the Middle East?" Zardok set up a meeting with Corcoran and pitched him the idea. "I read a synopsis of Ophir's project and liked what I read," said Corcoran. "When he sent me his full proposal, I was convinced and started looking for funding." The two found help from Irish Aid, the Irish government's assistance program for developing countries, as well as local funding from the Peres Center for Peace and Al-Quds Center For Dialogue and Democracy, and got the ball rolling. The village (organizers prefer not to use the word "camp" because of negative connotations) is run by a mixed team of Israeli and Palestinian coaches and counselors. The children come from the Palestinian towns of Jericho, Hebron and Tulkarm, and from the Israeli communities of Kiryat Gat and Merhavim. The children are all graduates of the Peres Center's Twinned Peace Sport Schools program, a project that runs throughout the school year and connects students from Israeli and Palestinian schools through joint sport events. "We're happy to have this project in the summer, because it is a natural continuation of what we do throughout the year and provides a climax for the kids," said Tamar Hay-Sagiv, director of the Peres Center's Sports Department. Earlier in the week the children were treated to a special outing, when they were invited by the Maccabi Haifa football team to attend its game against Kazakhstani rival FK Aktobe. The children witnessed the height of sports drama when the local team overcame a 3-0 deficit to finally win the game 4-3. "It was a great experience. The kids got to see the value of perseverance," said Zardok. "Maccabi Haifa is also a good role model because it has both Jewish and Arab players, who cooperate to achieve great things." Aside from football, the children also participate in other activities, ranging from coexistence workshops to arts and crafts. "We get the kids to pair up, one Israeli child and one Palestinian child, and draw T-shirts for each other. They can draw whatever they want, so they include sports-related things as well as issues that relate to their everyday life. One Israeli child was walking around with a Palestinian flag on his shirt, because his teammate drew it for him," said Hay-Sagiv. "The children prefer to talk about sports, not politics," said coach Riad Shweiky from east Jerusalem's Abu-Tor neighborhood. "Truthfully they don't really care about the politics. They understand that they're here to meet kids from the other side, but don't make a big deal about their differences." Shweiky said that the program was popular in his community and that the parents and relatives all approved of their children's participation in the project. "We try to get the children to learn a bit of the other side's language, too," said Shweiky, but noted that they did just fine communicating on the football pitch. "We don't expect this project to bring about world peace. We don't even expect the children to become best friends. What we do want is for them to see each other as human beings, to break stereotypes they might have about each other and to show them that they have things in common," said Zardok. At the end of the week, each child went home with a full kit uniform, a new soccer ball and a certificate from the camp, but the children also went home with phone numbers of new friends and memories of a happy week spent with kids who no longer seemed so different.