JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian youngsters are finding some common ground on a school playground.
Basketball games, hosted in Jerusalem by Hand in Hand, one of the few Israeli public schools where Jews and Arabs study together, are giving youths aged 10 to 16 a chance to try to bridge a wide political and religious divide.
“I’m not afraid but I’m tense,” said Azeza Shiquart, 15, of the village of Jabal Mukaber, in the occupied West Bank on the edge of Arab East Jerusalem, preparing for her first basketball game against Jewish teenagers from west Jerusalem.
“I want to let the Jewish girls know we are peaceful.”
Last March, a Palestinian gunman from Jabal Mukaber killed eight Israelis in an attack on a Jewish seminary in west Jerusalem before he was shot dead.
In July, another Palestinian from the same village rammed a bulldozer into an Israeli commuter bus, cars and pedestrians on one of Jerusalem’s busiest streets, killing three people.
Many of Azeza’s team were playing sports for the first time, and their headscarves and layers of long clothing set them apart from the Israeli players, who wore shorts and t-shirts.
Karen Doubilet, of PeacePlayers International (PPI), the group that organized the year-long basketball program, said strides toward peace could be made through such “baby steps.”
“A kid who’s been in our program, an Israeli kid who goes to the army, looks at the Palestinian coming through the checkpoint a little bit differently,” she said, referring to the network of West Bank roadblocks that Israel calls a security necessity and Palestinians condemn as a daily humiliation.
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and annexed the city in a move that has not won world recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be capital of the state they hope to build in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
PPI, which leads similar peace-through-sports projects in Northern Ireland and South Africa, says its longer programs have a more lasting effect than one-off discussion forums that bring Israeli and Arab students together.
“The morning after you may find wonderful results. Two months later and they have vanished,” said Gavriel Salomon, co-director of the Center for Research of Peace Education at the University of Haifa, referring to short-term programs.
Melisse Lewine-Boskovich of the Peace Child Israel organization, whose two-year-long program partners Arab and Jewish teenagers in writing bilingual plays based on their experiences, said a sharp decline in violence had taken some of the urgency away from the bridge-building exercises.
“It was much more trendy and sexy to be doing work with Palestinians and Israelis (in the past),” said Lewine-Boskovich. “It was also much easier to fundraise.”
Programs like PPI and PCI aim eventually to be compulsory within Israel’s public education system, building on models like the Hand in Hand schools, where classes are taught in Hebrew and Arabic.
Ala Khatib, the Arab co-principal of the Hand in Hand school in a well-off area of west Jerusalem, said co-existence was a lesson its 460 students could not ignore.
“Never mind what is going on outside, whether it’s bombing in Gaza or if it’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, you can’t stop school. You have to go to school, you have to face the other side, you have to say good morning, and you have to talk,” Khatib said.
At the end of the hour-long basketball session, the Arab and Jewish girls from East and west Jerusalem were not only talking, but laughing, hugging and exchanging high-fives.
“It’s starting small,” said 14-year-old basketball player Tamar Ranel, who comes from a school in west Jerusalem. “This can change the world — maybe — I don’t know.”
Editing by Charles Dick