April 13, 2004

Israeli Lior Ratner, right, and Palestinian teammate Tamer Tawfiq Taha run to warm up for their soccer game in Dallas last week. (Photo: AP)The Israeli and Palestinian boys were understandably bummed about their Dallas Cup debut, a humbling 9-0 loss. But administrators for this uncommon mix of children, dubbed the Peace Team, understand the trip is hardly about soccer results. It’s about Mohammad Amin Halaaf – and 17 boys like him assembled just for this weeklong visit.

Not so long ago, seeds of hate were budding in this 12-year-old Palestinian. Peace Team officials feared radical ideas were already spinning beneath his Beatlesque mop of straight black hair.

The Peace Team’s real aim during the prestigious youth soccer tournament is to nip such potentially extremist thinking. They want the Israeli and Palestinian children integrating culturally.

They want them “dealing with each other in sports, not thinking about carrying bombs or worrying about getting killed on a bus,” program director Alon Beer said.

The project, organized by the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, has combined nine Israeli boys and nine Palestinian boys from the West Bank. The children, ages 10-12, would have no interaction with the other side if not for such initiatives.

Halaaf is from the city of Isawiya inside Israel. He once watched his father jailed and, he says, mistreated by Israeli officials. He hated the Israelis for it and was not bashful about wishing harm on the omnipresent soldiers. But Halaaf’s views and ideas have softened lately thanks to peaceful time spent with Israeli boys his own age.

The team arrived last week, and the closest brush with “conflict” so far has been a spirited group game of rock-paper-scissors. A few other boys argued about their favorite soccer players, which administrators happily tolerated.

“I still hate the soldiers,” Halaaf says, “but I do not hate anybody on this team. They are my friends now.”

Alas, that represents progress in that complicated and violent part of the world. Versions of the Peace Team have recently appeared in Norway, Poland and Austria, but this is the organization’s first U.S. trip, and the first such excursion for these boys.
None of them are naïve. They speak the grown-up language of intifada (the uprising), Qassam missiles, retaliation and normalcy.

They all are touched by the violence. Israeli children, like Daniel Cahanov, 11, know people injured or killed by terrorist attacks. A missile recently leveled his school teacher’s home, although she was unharmed. The Palestinian children all know someone subjected to harsh treatment by Israeli soldiers.

Just a few weeks ago, children on both sides of the conflict had gathered for a soccer tournament organized by the Peres Center. A Qassam missile – a low-tech rocket fired from within the Gaza Strip – landed about 200 yards from the soccer field just minutes before a match. Organizers defiantly pressed on.

“They all know about these things because you cannot avoid it,” says Beer, the director of sports projects from the Peres Center, founded in 1996 by Nobel Laureate and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Beer says Peace Team administrators are not naïve, either. They have no delusions of eradicating extremist views or reversing a young lifetime of exposure to harmful notions.

“We are simply trying to show the boys that, even if it’s just a few hours at a time, that living together and working together is practical and possible,” Beer said.

The Peace Team in Dallas was chosen from among 700 youths in the Peres Center’s sports programs. They gather twice a week in schools across the country, where Israeli and Palestinian youth mingle in organized activity. These trips are a concentrated version of what they do year-round.

The programs are run outside of bustling Tel Aviv. Peace Center officials prefer to reach into disadvantaged areas inside and outside the occupied territories, where views tend to be more extreme.

“You can be a kid there and never talk to another boy from the other side,” said Shahar Eidelman, who grew up in the United States but now works for the Peres Center in Tel Aviv. “And that leads to all kinds of misconceptions and lack of understanding about the other side.”

Indeed, Mohammad Mustafa Kashour, 12, from Jerusalem, says he knew only bad things about Israelis before joining the Peace Team. “I heard that they are not good,” he said, “that they always make trouble.”

And yet, just a few seconds later, he asked to be excused from the interview. He was bored, he told the interpreter, and wanted to go play with the other boys, Palestinian and Israeli alike.

He rushes over to join his friends, who are kicking soccer balls and discovering the Texas phenomenon of the fire ant.

The boys are being housed in pairs by parents from Longhorns Soccer Club. The Israeli boys speak Hebrew; the Palestinian boys speak Arabic. But they have gathered a few words in each other’s language. And boys on either side know a smidgen of English. So through a linguistic mish-mash, they seem to have no difficulty understanding one another.

Besides, when grown-ups aren’t around to tell them what do to – which hasn’t been often, as the group has maintained nearly constant motion since it landed – they all speak the universal language of “young boy.”

Communication is all slapstick and horseplay. And in this case, there are always a few soccer balls around. So hotel lobbies, parking lots and front yards of host families’ houses have all been fair game for impromptu bursts of passing, dribbling or ball tricks.

Only those who speak Arabic or Hebrew would stand a chance at distinguishing the Palestinian from the Israeli boys. As for the local families which went scrambling for language translation software after learning Friday that their visitors did not speak English – the 11- and 12-year old American boys seem to be better communicators.

“My kids are giving me a hard time because I keep doing the hand signals with them,” said Jennifer Helm, a Longhorns Soccer Club mom who took a lead role in coordinating the Peace Team’s activities. “The [American] boys are just talking to them and, somehow, they all just seem to understand each other.”

Visa acquisition was rather trouble-free for the Israelis. But not so for the Palestinians, who were subject to more extensive background checks. In fact, the trip remained in some doubt just six hours before the team was scheduled to board its plane for Dallas by way of Frankfurt, Germany.

Palestinian coach Alla Aldin Badrieh – the team brought one Israeli and one Palestinian coach – promises more preparation time will make for a stronger team next year. The team was defeated, 6-0, on Monday.

“I think we will surprise people,” he says assuredly.

But Beer isn’t worried. He hinted before the tournament that the team might not be serious Dallas Cup contenders.

“But they are definitely going to win,” he said with a smile, “because in the end, peace will win.”

(Originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News)

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