It's Friday morning in the village of Al-Tawani in the West Bank's Hebron Hills, and dozens of Palestinian children and youth are playing soccer in a tournament involving teams from three area villages. The young players run about, kicking the ball and shouting, and at the end, the winning teams are given trophies. On the face of it, there is nothing unusual about such a tournament taking place in the village on the top of a hill, which is accessed by an unpaved road. However, on second glance visitors might be surprised to see the kids wearing red shirts emblazoned with the words "bridge to peace" and the Hapoel Tel Aviv symbol.
The shirts and the tournament are organized by the Education and Social Project, an independent organization working in conjunction with Hapoel Tel Aviv, which aims to improve relations between Jewish and Arab youths, and promotes educational initiatives through sports. For the past 12 years the organization has set up youth soccer clubs around Israel and in Palestinian Authority areas; they now comprise 25,000 participants, half of them Jewish and half Arab. About a year ago the organization expanded its activities into the West Bank.
"Our goal was to go one step further," explains Dr. Meir Orenstein, the organization's chairman, sitting in his office in Holon. "We decided to start programs in the PA with the aim of having kids from the authority meet up with kids from Israel. Our aspiration is [to become involved in] 30 to 40 villages within a year or two. We are an educational organization that sees soccer as a means, not a goal."
Adds Orenstein: "Our goal is for [Israeli] children to visit [Palestinians] in the future."
Currently, there are eight PA locales involved in the project, including 5 villages in the Jenin area and three in the Hebron Hills. Over 400 children between first and eighth grade have signed up for the program; at present, a new team in the West Bank town of Qafin, near the Jewish community of Metzer, is taking shape.
The Education and Social Project's budget stands at NIS 1 million a year, which is partially funded by the European Union. The project does not charge for participation, and employs Palestinian community organizers - including coaches and teachers - who meet with the children twice a week. One meeting is dedicated to playing soccer; the other involves educational activities. In addition, the organization provides the necessary soccer equipment and sends the coaches for training in Israel. Indeed, last month the Palestinian coaches from the Hebron Hills visited Israel to undergo professional training, and toured Be'er Sheva and Ashkelon.
"What's happening here is something very different," explains Hafez Harini, one of the organization's community organizers in the Hebron Hills area. He says Palestinian children traveling from nearby villages to Al-Tawani are sometimes bullied by settlers from Maon, and they have negative impressions of Jews.
"[Jewish] settlers are violent. Sometimes they throw stones," Harini says. "[Palestinian children] think all Israelis are settlers, but this project shows them otherwise."
"We don't talk to them about the conflict in the occupied territories," explains Aid Hadlin, another community organizer. "I talk to the kids about one thing: peace. It's easy to change the way a kid thinks, as opposed to adults. If we don't change things now, we'll start thinking in violent terms again."
"I hope to meet Israeli kids and play with them," one of the Palestinian youths in the project says. "Until now I thought they were all the same, but after the program began I think there are different Jewish kids. The moment I saw Jewish people organizing this program, it changed my opinion."
But the activity of an Israeli organization that is not recognized by the PA, in territory under its control, has caused some problems. The organization initially "bypassed" PA officials in Ramallah, making contacts in the West Bank with the help of people like Buma Inbar, an Israeli bereaved father and peace activist, who attended Friday's tournament in Al-Tawani, and Yoel Marshak, head of the United Kibbutz Movement's Special Assignments Division.
"The three regional councils we initially approached were fearful and did not want to work with us," says Oded Bashan, the deputy director general of the Education and Social Project.
"Our first contacts were made with the mayor of Qafin during a joint tree-planting event. We later met at roadblocks, and at one point had to shout to each other from different sides of the separation fence. Our activity in the five villages in the Jenin area is low-profile because they are designated 'A' [areas under the full control of the PA], and we are almost unable to get access to them. We have a brave Palestinian official organizing our activity there. Here, in the southern Hebron Hills we have better contact. We offered [to help] and they seized the opportunity. Though the PA does not recognize us, the local councils do."
Adds Orenstein: "We began activities in one or two villages, which, after two weeks, received orders from above not to work with Israeli Jews. Some [authorities] want money for using local facilities; our strategy forbids paying for facilities or classes though we fund everything else and kids do not have to pay a dime. Parents are pleased, children are pleased and our organizers are pleased. I imagine [local community organizers involved in the project] keep a low profile because they are scared of [appearing as if they are] cooperating with an Israeli organization."
Education and Social Project staff are asking for formal recognition by the PA and this issue was recently brought up during a meeting between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. A formal PA response on the matter has not yet been made.
"We don't want to patronize," Bashan declares. "We make mistakes and try to learn from them. The model we built suited the Israeli population and we have to consider whether it suits the Palestinian population."
Last Thursday, a day before the tournament in Al-Tawani, one team from predominantly Arab East Jerusalem was hosted by a Jewish team in its part of the city. The Arab children were greeted with flowers, and all the youngsters were later divided into mixed Jewish-Arab teams, playing together, as opposed to against each other.
"Soccer is their life," says Sami Assu, who is in charge of the Arab team. "Soccer can be used to do all sorts of things, as a means to talk to children. We prepare them for the encounter, but don't talk about the conflict unless we have to. We learn a lot from their questions. Sometimes they ask, 'Why must we play with them?' Or, 'Why do we always go there and they never come here?'"
"It's clearly problematic that [Palestinian children] always come here [to Israel proper]," Bashan admits. "I wish we could take Israeli children there, but of course their parents are scared."
Palestinian organizer Hadlin says he hopes one day that the Israeli children will be able to visit the West Bank, free of fear. "We hope Israeli kids will come here [because] it's a beautiful place," he says.
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