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Bridging The Divide

Football can unify people of different skin colours and from different cultures and religions. One shining example of the power of football can be found in Jerusalem, the city that is home to a mixed Jewish and Arab-Israeli football team.
The pitch is scruffy with bare patches of earth and sand. The crowd is sparse with half a dozen girls and boys yawning in the sunshine of the Judean hills. The home players are having a lazy kickabout as they wait for their opponents’ bus to arrive.
As football games go, this is as ordinary as it gets. And yet the presence of a tiny FIFA film crew, for this apparently insignificant fixture, shows that something rather special is taking place.
In fact, today’s match in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion might be recorded by future sports historians as one of those rare moments when sport was history, when sport made history. An epochal event like Jesse Owens’ gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when the world was first alerted to the threat of national socialism. An event like the ping-pong diplomacy of the ’70s and the table tennis tournaments that are now seen as the first thaw in Chinese-American relations. But how can this game of youth football rank alongside those seminal episodes? To understand, you have to know the history of the two teams involved.
The home team is Hapoel Katamon FC – “Katamon” for short. The club was founded by one-time Israeli diplomat Alon Liel. A few years ago, Liel approached the mayor of Abu Ghosh, a small Arab-Israeli town near Jerusalem, with the idea of combining Abu Ghosh’s team with a mainly Jewish team from the larger settlement of Mevaseret.
Liel’s intention was to fight the anti-Arab feeling prevalent in sectors of Israeli football. As Liel says: “The hatred exists mainly in places like Jerusalem, where there has been a lot of Palestinian terrorism. The fact that the Arab population in Israel often identifies with the Palestinian cause leads to a very low level of trust.”
Whatever the reason, this racism can be decidedly nasty. Liel recalls a match between the mixed Arab-Israeli team of Sakhnin, and Betar Jerusalem, one of the leading teams in Israel. “For 90 minutes the Betar crowd chanted horrible things. They sang, Ahmed, clean the toilets’, Ahmed, get me a coffee’ and ‘Death to Arabs.”
To help fight this racism, Liel had a working lunch with the mayor of Abu Ghosh. The mayor agreed to Liel’s innovative proposal. Since then, the mixed-race football team they established has fought its way through the divisions and now boasts a strong following of supporters. All three youth squads attached to the club combine Arab-Israeli and Jewish players. The management of the club is likewise divided between Arab-Israelis and Jews.
The diversity of Katamon is written in the faces of the young players in Mevaseret today. Some of these faces are of Jews from Ethiopia who speak Amharic. And some, of course, are Muslim.
Here is Fawzi, just 15, and a right back, limbering up for the match. “I like playing with this team. It’s difficult for Arabs and Jews to play together normally. But here that’s what we do – we play together, just like anyone else.”
Mohammad Isa, 31, is the sports director of the team. He is also from Abu Ghosh: “When kids reach their teens it is difficult to integrate them. Because they fall in love and marry — within their own community. But if you start them young, it is easier. I hope we teach these Arab and Jewish kids not just to train together, but to learn from each other.”
The work of Katamon is well known in Israeli society. Liel has harnessed the energy of his mixed-race team for other causes: helping kids from Darfur for example. He likes to think of Katamon as “socialist” in principle as they assist poor people anywhere. But today’s match is a giant stride beyond anything Liel has attempted before. As 12 noon approaches, his face twitches with anxiety. Will the opponents even show up? A proper crowd has gathered now, alerted to the unusual nature of the game.
At last a big bus sweeps in. And the first person who alights is a woman with a white veil.
She is a Druze Arab from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Her son belongs to the first Syrian-born football team ever to play in Israel.
An editor from Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling Hebrew tabloid, has arrived. As we watch the young team step down from the bus with their parents and grandparents, he explains why the game is so remarkable.
“These people, the Druze team, are being incredibly brave. They are Syrian nationals, even though they live in the Israeli-occupied zone. Syria has been at war with Israel for decades. Maybe one day Israel will give the Golan back to Syria. Then these people could be shot by the Syrian government: as Israeli spies. Yet they have come here, anyway, to play football. That shows great courage.”
The Druze are a religious sect whose beliefs deviate from those of mainstream Islam. There are over a million worldwide, with 100,000 living in Israel. The players certainly look rather shy and anxious; Alon Liel rushes forward to reassure them.
It is a long and arduous road. The negotiations have been disowned by the respective governments, conscious of popular sentiment. Yet the urge for peace persists, because without a conclusion to the Golan dispute, Israel can never be truly secure like any normal country.
And this football match is a crucial element of the normalisation of Syrian-Israeli relations. Alon Liel puts it bluntly: “These Syrians would never have been allowed to come here without the tacit permission of the Damascus government. I see this match as a smile from Syria.”
At first there are not too many smiles on the faces of the young and muscular Druze players. But as the match unfolds, everyone starts to relax. The Druze team slot three goals past the weaker Israelis. At half-time, the friends and relatives of the Druze players hand out sweetmeats and pastries from Damascus and rosy red apples from the Golan orchards. It is a touching scene.
Rifat and Nedaq are a young couple from the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan. They are here to watch their brother play. A talented playmaker, he has already whacked a brace of goals past Katamon’s Arab-Israeli keeper.
Rifat explains that this is the first time he has been to Jerusalem. “I am a Syrian national. It is very difficult for the Golan Druze to travel, we do not have Israeli passports, nor do we have Syrian passports. But we are very happy to be here today. Especially because we are winning!”
He turns and cheers. The second half is something of a walkover. The final result is 7-1. The Israeli team hope to do better when they play the scheduled return match, in the green hills of the Golan, in a few weeks’ time. But the result, of course, is relatively unimportant. What remains in the mind is the sight of these players, from so many varied, remote and sometimes hostile cultures, brought together by a simple game.
And maybe that simplicity is the key. Make it any more complicated, any more significant, and it would not work. Put it another way: peace begins not with politicians signing treaties in palatial halls, but with a shy Arab woman handing out Syrian pastries to smiling Jewish kids on a scruffy football pitch.