Sam Araj, a young and promising soccer player who lives in the Shoafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem — and who has played on the youth teams of Beitar Jerusalem and of the Italian soccer team Juventus — made headlines a year ago when he was alleged to be a terrorist. Araj was falsely accused of carrying out the terrorist attack at the Be’er Sheva central bus station last October, even though he was in the West Bank city of Ramallah at the time.
The police acknowledged the mistake, but ended up charging Araj with stone throwing after what he says was a false and forced confession that led to nine months in prison.
Now Araj is making headlines again. Just a few weeks after being released from jail, Araj began a different sort of confrontation with Israelis: Facing off with them at a Jerusalem backgammon tournament that transcended cultural boundaries.
About 150 Palestinians and Israelis took part in the tournament in East Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood, where Araj played Galit Sahar. The game was held in the yard of businessman Mahmoud al-Rifai, the son of a well-known former preacher at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The tournament was initiated by a group of Jewish and Arab social activists who came together about five years ago, initially around a project called “Just Singing” in which participants sang in Arabic and Hebrew. The program was a great success despite a deteriorating security situation in Jerusalem at the time. That program culminated in a street party held in November, 2014, near the seam line separating Israeli West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem. The success of that initiative prompted organizers to expand their activities by launching the backgammon events.
“We were looking for something that would require people to sit face-to-face and where they would have no choice but to play,” said Kamel Jabareen, a youth counselor from the Shoafat refugee camp and one of the organizers of the event.
“We are not offering a political solution,” said another leader of the effort, Hadi Goldschmidt. “We are offering a human solution in which people see a human being facing them. From that point, it will be easier to reach understandings.”
The Beit Hanina event attracted a wide audience. The Israeli group included a large number of observant Jews. “I think coming here is the religious thing to do,” said Goldschmidt, who is himself a religious Jew.
Prominent among Palestinian participants are residents of the Shoafat refugee camp, one the most forlorn and volatile places in East Jerusalem.
“It’s not easy,” organizer Jabareen admitted. “There are people who oppose this, but most of the people just want to live,” he said, referring to their desire for coexistence.
The organizers of the activities recently established a non-profit organization called Kulna Yerushalayim.
In about 10 days another tournament will be held, this time in West Jerusalem. That is to be followed by what is being dubbed the Talbieh championship, named after the Talbieh neighborhood, where the Israeli president’s residence is located. If all goes as planned, President Reuven Rivlin will take part in that tournament.
Al-Rafai, host of the tournament in Beit Hanina, summed up the spirit of the initiative. “We have to ask not whom Jerusalem belongs to,” he said, “but who belongs to Jerusalem, because belonging comes with a commitment.”