Jewish and Arab members of the Israel soccer ‘peace team’ embrace following a recent victory.As the whistle sounded at the close of the 2003 Israeli professional indoor soccer winter league championship recently, the winners jumped for joy hugged each other, and lifting their coach on their shoulders, and crossed the field in a victory march.
More than 1,000 spectators cheered loudly, and all of the excitement was captured live by the Israeli sports channel.
The victory celebration was an important and unique moment in Israeli sports – the winning team was comprised both of Israelis and Palestinians. The victorious “Peace Team” created in order to promote a message of peace and co-existence, and to emphasize a peaceful alternative to the current tension by demonstrating cooperation and teamwork between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Peace Team was established in January 2002 in a cooperative effort between The Peres Center for Peace and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Since its inception, the Peace Team has met on a weekly basis for training sessions, and team members have traveled together twice for international training camps and tournaments to Turkey and Cyprus. All training was focused from the outset towards full participation in the Israeli Professional Coca-Cola Futsal League. Futsal, also known as “mini soccer,” takes place indoors.
But winning the league championship was beyond anything they had ever dreamed of – as have the close and friendly relations between the players.
“It is amazing how close they have become,” says Avi Tocker, manager of the BGU sports center. “The players have become like a family.”
The story of the creation of the team all began when Vico Haddad, who works both at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Wingate Institute was invited at Wingate to take part in a special seminar for Israeli and Palestinian soccer coaches, sponsored by the Peres Center.
One session of the seminar took place in Northern Ireland, and the second in Cyprus.
As he became friendly with the Palestinian coaches, the idea of a joint team arose. They chose their players, and played together in games in Turkey and Cyprus. Impressed by the initiative, the Peres Center became the team?s sponsor.
When an Israeli professional indoor soccer league was created – the team signed up.
The Israeli participants are all students or former students at Ben-Gurion University, the Palestinians come from Ramallah or East Jerusalem. They are all in their early 20s. On their weekly practice day, they spend together, eat together, and have become close friends.
The peace team made its public debut in October 2002 in Tel Aviv in the presence of Labor Knesset member Shimon Peres, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, Palestinian guests, and ambassadors and diplomats from all over the globe.
This week, the team headed for a tournament in Belgium, and will continue to Rome, where they were invited to play a game against another “peace team” – a Rwandan squad made up of players from the countries rival tribes with a bloody history – Hutus and Tutsis.
The relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian players has inspired another project has emerged from the group – twin soccer schools for youth – one in a Palestinian village and the other, ironically, in Sderot, in precisely the area where Katyusha rockets have been landing, shot by terrorists from Gaza.
Though the team makes every effort to rise above the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, logistical problems are inevitable.
Getting the Palestinian players to and from their practice sessions is not always an easy matter. Most of the time it goes smoothly, but curfews, closures and roadblocks make it a challenge. Transporting the players is an expensive matter, a cost shouldered by the Peres Center.
But the relationships between the players has taken far less effort, despite the tense political and security situation.
Coach Haddad explains: “We don’t talk politics – it’s not an explicit rule, it’s just something that everybody does. But sometimes, I’m uncomfortable. When I hear a house was destroyed in the village where many of the players live, and then they came to practice. I tell them, ‘I hear there was a mess in your village today. I’m sorry it happened.’ And that’s the end of it.”