The Peres Center for Peace is building peace between Israeli and Palestinian children at the grassroots level through the love of soccer.
The Peres Center for Peace is a non-profit organization which was founded in 1996 with the goal of promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis at the grassroots level, through people to people interactions. According to project manager Sivan Hendel, “The center is working through all sorts of aspects to bring Jews and Arabs together, in order to break down barriers and build a sustainable future.” One of the ways that the Peres Center for Peace is doing this is through having Palestinian and Israeli children regularly play sports together.
Hendel explained that the Peres Center for Peace twins one Israeli school or group with a Palestinian one through the “Twined Peace and Sports School Program,” which is taking place for its tenth year. Usually, both the Israeli and Palestinian children hail from underprivileged communities, where the children potentially may not have had the chance to partake on a sports team otherwise. The Israeli and Palestinian children train with a local coach within their community twice per week, and then the Israeli and Palestinian children come together once per month for a joint activity. She claims that the children don’t only play sports with one another, but also engage in cultural events and activities that promote peace education.
THE 2013 MINI-MONDIAL
Once per year both Israeli and Palestinian children look forward to Mini-Mondial event, a soccer tournament for children in the program. It includes one mini-mondial for boys and one for girls, with each group consisting of 250 Israeli and Palestinian children. During the mini-mondial, Palestinian and Israeli children are mixed together on the same team and then play against another group of Palestinian and Israeli children that are also part of the same team. However, Hendel explained that the children are not only judged on how well they play soccer. In fact, the largest trophy goes to the children that treat the other children in the group the most respectfully.
Hendel reported that this years’ 2013 Mini-Mondial was a success. Even though language barriers and cultural differences can make things challenging at times, the main thing is that the children enjoyed playing soccer together. Hendel explained, “Once they have one identity and flag they are cheering for, they are proud of this group.” In fact, friendships are forming among the Israeli and Palestinian children as a result of joint events like the 2013 Mini-Mondial.
PALESTINIAN AND ISRAELI REACTIONS
According to Hendel, although the situation varies from child to child, family to family, location to location, and based on the present political situation, “From the evaluating process inside our department, there is a change in the kids mind and their opinions about the other side. The most important result is the fear diminishing and they start to see the other side as human. That is really felt, even in our day to day activities. The biggest problem in our conflict is that people don’t know each other and they demonize the other side.”
The parents are also usually very supportive of the program. According to Hendel, “Usually there is no problem at all. Usually the parents want to see their kids play. It’s very nice for them to have a football framework for their kids, so most of them not only approve it, but really support it.” Additionally, the Peres Center for Peace set up a parents group and the parents of the children met together, independent from their children playing sports together.
When asked how sports can be utilized to promote peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Hendel responded, “Sports is an international language. You don’t have to understand them verbally. The moment they go out to pitch; all of the differences disappear. It is very nice to see and feel how through sports they are able to communicate.”
By Rachel Avraham, staff writer for United With Israel