Yuval Davda once thought all Palestinians wanted to harm her. Now, the 12-year-old Israeli is learning Arabic to talk with Palestinian friends.
The change came in three years with the Twinned Peace Sport Schools, the oldest and largest operation using athletics to promote interaction between Israeli and Palestinian children. Its ninth season started in September.
“I’ve come a long way, and I am proud of myself and the project for helping me understand that Palestinians are no different from us,” Davda wrote in an e-mail. “Perhaps if we worked together more we would be able to get closer to creating peace among our communities.”
Managed by the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv and the Al-Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue in the West Bank, the schools challenge stereotypes in a region enveloped by conflict for decades. The latest high-level effort to get the sides talking, spearheaded by U.S. President Barack Obama, broke down when an Israeli freeze on West Bank settlement building expired in late September and the Palestinians refused to continue negotiations until it was renewed.
Both the Peres Center and Al-Quds Association are non- profit organizations and Twinned Peace is entirely donor-driven. It costs $100,000 a year to run a pair of schools, including equipment, travel costs and coaches’ salaries, Peres Center spokeswoman Inbal Yohanan wrote in an e-mail. The program, which runs 11 such twin schools, recently launched a 600 Goals fundraising campaign aimed at securing enough money for the 2011 year.
“These children are the future of our land,” said Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi, 22, who grew up outside Tel Aviv and visited a Twinned Peace basketball camp in September. “When they are adults they are going to have bonds and friendships with each other. It’s invaluable.”
More than 2,400 children in 22 schools have taken part in the program, which offers soccer and basketball. It targets Palestinian and Israeli towns where cooperation usually is an afterthought, Peres Center director of sport Tami Hay-Sagiv said.
“This conflict will not solve itself, and we need to take the initiative to find creative ways to break the barriers between both sides,” Sulaiman Khatib, 38-year-old director of the Al-Quds Association, said in a telephone interview.
The Israeli government began construction on a proposed 491-mile (790 kilometer) concrete fence along the West Bank border in 2003. The barrier and its security checkpoints were designed to halt the increase of suicide bombings, which killed 447 Israeli citizens from 2001 to 2003, according to a 2007 study conducted by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.
Sports, Language, Peace
Children in Twinned Peace participate in biweekly sports training, language lessons and peace discussions at schools in their own communities. Once a month, Palestinian children cross the barrier to their twinned school --Israeli law prohibits entrance into the West Bank, Hay-Sagiv said -- where they integrate teams and play. The most recent of the joint activities, held on Nov. 28, included a visit by retired Italian goalkeeper Francesco Toldo.
Before joining her basketball school, 13-year-old Stav Khuato said she despised Palestinians for attacking her town of Sderot with Qassam rockets. Nadine Walled Elias Abu Saada, 14, said she believed Palestinian media coverage that said Israelis were her enemy. Both now communicate with friends across the barrier through e-mail or Facebook.
Yohanan said that in addition to affecting the lives and opinions of the students, a Peres Center study concluded that the joint activities had an effect on the beliefs and attitudes of many of the children’s families and friends. On Dec. 2 the program was named Non Governmental Organization of the Year at the Peace and Sport award ceremony in Monaco.
In June, Twinned Peace sent four Palestinians and four Israelis, split evenly between boys and girls, to soccer’s World Cup in South Africa to compete in the Football for Hope youth tournament. The “Peace Team” won four of six games.
“Peace is very achievable if we work together,” Abed Elrahman Badareen, a 16-year-old Palestinian member of the team, said through a translator in an e-mail. “When the younger generations look at us playing together, they will defiantly follow our footsteps and continue in the path of peace.”
Khatib was 14 when he was arrested and jailed for 10 years for fighting with the Palestinian resistance. Hay-Sagiv first met Palestinians during her time in the Israeli army from 1998 to 2002.
“During my army service, I realized that Palestinians live 30 minutes from me and the only chance I have to interact with them is when I am wearing my uniform,” Hay-Sagiv, 30, said in a telephone interview. “This is a mistake.”
Hay-Sagiv and Khatib speak daily to ensure that the 1,500 participants receive identical experiences, from training schedules to practice jerseys.
Khatib said he understood the potential on his very first day, when “I saw the kids playing together and could not see who was Palestinian and who was Israeli.”
The Palestinian schools are often delayed at barrier checkpoints, Khatib said, which cuts into the time that children spend together. Palestinian soccer coach Kamal Abu Althom said checkpoints within the West Bank cause trouble as well, and none of the 14 Palestinian schools involved operate in Gaza because of the politics of Hamas, its ruling party.
“Hamas believes that Israelis are our enemies, that we should not interact with them in any way,” Abu Althom, 26, said. “They will never believe in Israel and believe in peace.”
Hamas in Gaza
Hamas, which controls Gaza, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel. It seized full control of the coastal enclave in 2007, ending a power-sharing arrangement with the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after winning parliamentary elections the previous year.
The 2008-09 Gaza War, a three-week conflict that killed 13 Israelis and at least 1,100 Palestinians, created so much tension that the schools stopped meeting. In January 2009, as defense helicopters patrolled the skies of Timorim in central Israel, 15 Israeli coaches met for a two-hour discussion on the program’s future.
“At first the coaches were afraid,” Hay-Sagiv said. “They did not want to meet the Palestinians anymore. But after a long talk they said, ‘If we stop this, Tami, it will be that we didn’t accomplish anything in the past six years.’”
About 45 miles away in Ramallah, the Palestinian coaches agreed that the bloodshed and political situation only made their mission more important. The schools rejoined the following month with a group discussion about the war.
“One boy told us that he was sitting at home watching his father screaming at the TV to kill all the Palestinians,” Hay-Sagiv said. “And he said, ‘Father, I have a Palestinian friend, you cannot say something like this.’ That was a ‘wow’ moment.”