How can Israeli and Palestinian children meet? The separation barrier and system of checkpoints seems to make it impossible. If they never meet, how will they ever overcome stereotypes of each other? With large and growing populations of children and young people* this seems an important question to ask. And last week, I learned of one project that has been working to answer it.
For just two summer months, this football pitch lies sleeping in the sun - a brief respite from the energy that tears up and down it the rest of the year: every day, from 3 in the afternoon until 9 or 10 in the evening.
For Chaim Nadler, this is the fulfilment of a dream: a mixed Arab and Israeli soccer club. Ten years ago, he gave up his job at the local plastics factory and threw himself full-time into setting up this, the Barkai Center for Soccer and Coexistence, here in Israel, a few miles past the border with the West Bank. Today, it has a membership of some 400 children aged between 10 and 15 years old, who show up three or four times a week for football practice and training.
The Center is in Menashe, a regional municipality consisting of a lot of small communities, including ten kibbutzes, and three Arabic villages – including Meiser, where I spent last Saturday with Said Arda, its head of youth and development and his wife Jutta, three children, and assorted pets. With a population of 800, Meiser is a place where people know each other and where Said grew up with his six brothers. In terms of football, Said and Jutta’s three sons are all goalkeepers – and active members of the club.
Officially designated an Arab Israeli, Said sees himself as Palestinian. As the crow flies, Meiser is just eight kilometers from Tulkarem, where he has relatives. But of course, with the occupation, crows aren’t a lot of use. The old road is closed, and what used to be a journey of ten minutes is now a drive of over an hour, involving two checkpoints.
Said took me to meet Chaim, one of the ‘crazy people like me’, in his words, working to make opportunities for children and young people to mix. As he put it: “What I love about this project so much is that it is sport, but it is also education. The idea is that the children should be human first, before they are good soccer players.’
Chaim explained: ‘This is not a philanthropic organization. We look for professional people and have to pay for them. (Costs of the club include: fees for the coaches, maintenance of the field, water and electricity for the office and hut and travel to matches - and a social facilitator.) ‘We think it is very important to get the connections between Arab and Jewish children, educating in more than just sports and teaching them how to cooperate with each other, using games and talk. We take them on visits, to a mosque and to a synagogue, as well as playing football.’
The Barkai Center for soccer has also just begun another initiative: this time, to bring Palestinian children from Jenin, in the West Bank to play football together with local Israeli kids. It took months to get the paperwork. At last, in April, the first trip came: a busload of 40 children. They met, talked, ate, and - in mixed teams - played a lot of football. For a second meeting in June, another group made the same journey, and had the same get-together.
Said and Chaim both feel proud of the Center’s achievements – but both are aware of the road still to travel. As Chaim said: ‘It’s not equal, of course, not balanced. I don’t want the children from here to make a favour out of meeting the other side. We need to work to make the traveling to Israel less exciting for the kids fron Jenin, so as to give the meetings themselves more value.’
Just outside Meiser, Said stopped the car to show me a stretch of the wall, a feature of every view wherever you travel in the West Bank.
Here, we were on the Israeli side of it, and it looked no less insuperable. (His son Adam, 1m 80 tall, stood against it for proportion purposes.)
On this day, however, I was learning about one small project on the ground that is finding a way to overcome its division of despair.
*In Palestine, 45.7% of the population is under the age of 15. (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics Demographic and Socioeconomic Status of the Palestinian People at the end of 2006 , PCBS, Ramallah, Palestine). I haven't been able to find out the figures for Israel yet.
Chaim recalled work with the University of Brighton with similar aims, five years ago, when the Football Association hosted a training week for Jewish and Muslim Israeli community sports leaders at the University of Brighton, followed by a meeting in Northern Israel. For a brief account, see www.fa.com (click on international relations).