JERUSALEM (Reuters) - American football, not the most genteel of sports, is proving to be an unlikely force in bringing together Israelis and Palestinians.
Nationals from the two territories, who have been in conflict for years, have formed the Judean Rebels, a squad that practices and plays American football every week on a field in Jerusalem.
The sport is rarely played in the Middle East but many of the Israeli members of the team immigrated from the United States and live in settlements in the occupied West Bank.
They and their four American-born Palestinian gridiron colleagues say their love of the sport transcends politics.
Musa Elayyan said all he, brothers Mohammed and Ayub and cousin Ramzi wanted to do was play football.
“I played in high school and suddenly going ‘cold turkey’ — it was kind of hard,” the 22-year-old Palestinian said.
Elayyan, who lives in the neighborhood of Beit Hanina adjacent to Jerusalem’s city limits, said he felt no sense of enmity from any of his team mates and was interested only in playing.
“The whole thing is to play football and have fun...if there is any friction, we talk about it,” he said.
Judean Rebels captain Matan Goldberg, 26, said politics never came into play.
“It’s about playing football and trying to win,” Goldberg said.
“They were just like any other guys,” he said about his Palestinian team mates. “It is not easy in Israel to find people who play football, we just found these guys who played football in high school.”
The Israeli amateur league, which is in its third season, comprises nine teams. There are not enough players for full 11-man teams, so each side fields eight players for a game.
The Judean Rebels wear orange, a color adopted by settlers in recent years after it became a symbol of opposition to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza Strip settlements.
Team coach Shlomo Barya Shechter said orange with green trim symbolized the color of the fertile land in the southern West Bank near the cluster of settlements known as the Etzion Bloc although he did not resist ascribing other connotations to it.
“Anybody who wants to consider this the settlers’ color is most welcome,” said the bearded Shechter, a former settler from Bat Ayin in the southern West Bank who lives in Jerusalem.
Palestinians hope to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and fear the settlements, built on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, will deny them a contiguous and viable country.
Elayyan said his Palestinian friends and neighbors had reacted positively to the sporting endeavor.
“They think it is good, awesome, because they are tired of war...and we are doing our thing, playing football,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon