Playing for Peace

By Nadia W. Awad – The West Bank

My 16-year old brother arrived home yesterday aching and tired, exhausted from a day of participating in the Peace League, a football league involving different high schools in Israel and Palestine. The Peace League not only promotes excellence in football, but more importantly, it seeks to promote a much loftier aim, interaction and dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli youth. Of course, if you ask my brother, it’s all about the football! I questioned him about the events of the day and what his schedule had been like. They had played three, one hour-long games, two of them in a row. I asked how they decided which team played two games in a row, because it seemed that team would be at a disadvantage. Did they toss a coin, or alternate every year? He shrugged his shoulders and said his team or another Palestinian team had always played two in a row. “We’re Arabs”, he said quietly. There was nothing so disheartening to hear as those two words; they truly did strike a harsh blow. Here is a league that is meant to promote understanding, even sympathy, between the two groups. And yet, my brother’s attitude and experience suggested that understanding had not been the order of the day. He told me that the League always plays its games in an Israeli high school, usually in Netanya. The excuse for this is of course that they have much better grounds to facilitate the League. Also, Israeli citizens are highly discouraged from entering the Palestinian Territories.

As I was considering his response, I began to wonder what kind of impact the Peace League could have on these young, impressionable students. Palestinian students benefited in the sense that they were able to participate in a competitive sport, spend time away from their usual grounds, and meet new people their own age (Israeli and Palestinian). But they also, to use a colloquial phrase, get their noses rubbed in it. By this I mean that they see better training grounds, nicer neighborhoods, fully equipped schools, and most importantly of all, no wall or checkpoints. It’s the closest they’ll come to witnessing what a normal life looks like, because they’ll never experience such a thing in their own homes until the occupation ends. My brother’s team lost two of the three games. I think it is very impressive that they were able to win a game at all, when they are clearly at a disadvantage physically. My brother’s team practices on a rough, cement surface. Because of the checkpoints, they have difficulty getting to and from training. They have a volunteer coach and no money to spend on training equipment and energy supplements. Their strip is made of cheap material that is not conducive to physical exertion. They are the underdogs.

How do Israeli youth benefit from the Peace League? On the positive side, they’ll get to talk to these Palestinian students, and realize that Palestinians are human beings and not just the crazy terrorists we are often portrayed to be in the news. Exchanging life stories could open their eyes to the horrors of life under occupation. It might give them background information and a context in which to place the political events happening around them. On the other hand, until they actually get to see the situation first hand, they’ll never really understand what it means to live under an occupation that their own government has imposed. That’s what I often feel as I write these articles. It doesn’t matter how many times I repeat words like occupation, wall, settlements, closures, checkpoint etc. The readers will never really understand unless they witness these atrocities for themselves. The stench that hits you as you pass between the Kalandia checkpoint and Ar-Ram neighborhood because the Israelis have let sewage flow openly – that is something that can never be given full ‘justice’ by description alone.

Despite these impediments to meaningful dialogue, the Peace League is just one of many such organizations promoting peace. Seeds of Peace, Bridges for Peace, Soccer Unites – there are many like them, all with ambitious goals. As a high school student, I knew quite a few Palestinians who joined Seeds of Peace, which takes Palestinian and Israeli youth to ‘neutral’ territory in the United States. I even considered going myself. But when I spoke to those who had participated, I always sensed an overwhelming feeling of frustration coming from them. One girl told me she had spent most of the time fighting. Taken out of her comfort zone, she felt she had to be defensive of the Palestinian cause. Ordinary topics of conversation between her and Israelis inevitably turned into areas of tension. I asked her why. Couldn’t she talk about school, her favorite classes, music? She said she had tried, but even within those topics there was always some aspect of the Israeli occupation haunting her. When she spoke about school, she thought about the checkpoints and soldiers she met on her way to and from there every day. When she talked about her favorite classes, she thought of all the facilities and equipment she would never be able to take advantage of. No labs, no auditoriums, no proper sports facilities… When talking about music, her mind turned to the fact that prominent musicians rarely perform in Palestine, and that the ‘music’ she often heard was the noise of funerals and demonstrations happening across Palestinian towns and villages. What intrigued me the most throughout this conversation was that she was frustrated because she felt guilty for having such feelings of anger. She felt she was destroying the ethos of the camp.

I would never presume to say that these types of peace camps are a waste of time. On the contrary, I think they serve a greater good and should be lauded. However, they could be much more effective if they removed Israelis from their comfort zone and allowed them to witness first hand this occupation Palestinians are always talking about. In addition, we Palestinians need to stop hiding the anger and bitterness we feel; we should express it clearly. After all, it is our truth. Drumming it down and trying to be polite will only be counterproductive. Many of these peace camps have been successful because they have had very vocal Palestinian and Israeli youths debating and challenging the situation. These are the types of camps which must perpetuate those successful experiences. My brother and his team are at fault for not going to the organizers of the Peace League and questioning them about the schedule of play. And the Israeli youths need to see this hell their Palestinian counterparts are living in, imposed by Israel for forty years.

Since I began this article talking about football, I’ll end it on a similar but more positive note. The head of the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), Mr. Joseph Blatter, will attend the first international friendly played on Palestinian land between Palestine and Jordan. This will be the first time the Palestinian national team will get to play a home match on home soil as opposed to a pitch in Jordan or Egypt. The pitch was built through donations from FIFA and other organizations. Hopefully Israel won’t see fit to destroy it in the interest of ‘national security’.
 
(Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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