Palestinians, Israelis Explore Peace Through Sports

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(Host) This winter, a group of Israeli and Palestinian basketball coaches spent ten days together at the University of Vermont. They attended coaching workshops and played basketball. Their hope is that peace can be built through personal interaction.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff reports.

(Sound of game announcer) “Good afternoon and welcome to the University of Vermont Patrick Gym for this special Friendship Game between Team Middle East¿and Team Vermont¿.”

(Charnoff) The sounds of basketball fill the court at UVM’s Patrick Gym. But this is no ordinary game. One team is made up of Israelis and Palestinians, playing together side by side. The other comprises UVM students and faculty. Right from the beginning, the score is close.

(Sound of game announcer) “Basket by Iris Goren!”

(Charnoff) On the wall, the flags of Israel and Palestine are crossed in unity. Team Mideast is made up of ten men and two women, ranging in age from 22 to 38. They’ve spent much of their visit in coaching workshops. As today’s game gets under way, there’s an unusual moment:

(Sound of game announcer) “Ladies and gentlemen, would you now please rise for the playing of the Palestinian and Israeli anthems.” (Sound of Palestinian anthem)

(Charnoff) Yair Gallily is one of the coordinators of Team Mideast’s workshops. He says that unlike the U.S., most countries do not play anthems before sporting events, but it seemed appropriate to hear the anthems before today’s game. For most of the Israelis, this is the first time they’ve heard the Palestinian anthem:

(Galilly) “You know, Palestine is not yet a state, and it’s kind of controversial. But I guess for the Palestinians it was pretty important, and I respect these people, so I guess it’s important for me too.”

(Charnoff) The game is part of a project called “Sports for Peace,” sponsored by UVM and by Israel’s Peres Center for Peace. The center is dedicated to promoting a culture of peace through dialogue and interaction between Israelis and Palestinians.

The idea behind the Sports for Peace Program is to create activities that will bring children from the separate areas together. Alon Beer is the project manager from the Peres Center:

(Beer) “The whole idea of taking those coaches out of the region is to taking them to a neutral and quiet area, and to create and to build a confidence between them, and then going back to the region and bring the children that they are coaching to take part in people-to-people activities¿and to give some hope for those children through sport¿. The idea is that those children will be out of the streets¿ and will learn that they can use sport in order to create for themselves a better future.”

(Charnoff) The coaches arrived in the United States determined to set aside personal and political differences

Marcus Kotto is a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and a member of Team Mideast. He says it wasn’t easy choosing between taking up arms, and working for peace.

(Kotto) “Yes, there has been one time actually when my house in Bejara, which is town I’m living in, was bombed by the Israeli army, and my family had to immigrate to the States because of the situation. I was in a very bad situation concerning my relations to the Jews and to the Israeli people. But as you see, I’ve come over it, and I came, even though it was very hard for me. But I am happy I did.”

(Charnoff) Kotto says it took 14 years to obtain immigration visas for his family. Because of new laws regarding men over the age of 22, Kotto still cannot obtain a visa for himself, so he stays in Bethlehem.

Oran Heffez is an Israeli who coaches first division pro women’s basketball. Until he became a member of Team Mideast, his only encounters with Palestinians had been as a soldier. He says he was amazed at how well everyone got along on their stressful journey to the U.S, which included many flight delays and unexpected layovers:

(Heffez) “I think this is the most important thing I can take from here to Israel, is that you can teach the boys and girls that you can live with the Arabs. They are the same – same like us, and they must find a way¿.”

(Charnoff) Heffez does not believe that peace is possible in this generation. He does think programs set up by the Peres Center can lay the groundwork for the next generation. On his return to Israel, Heffez will fulfill his annual three week duties as an Israeli soldier. He says his ten days spent as a member of Team Mideast have tempered his attitude toward Palestinians:

(Heffez) “I’m sure that when I go to serve at Ramallah, I will be much more patient to the population.”

(Charnoff) In addition to the coaching workshops, the visitors also spent time with Vermont families. One night, at dinner with the Jerry Tarrent family of Mallets Bay, Marcus Kotto, a Palestinian, and Israeli Yair Gallily reflected on Mideast issues. In the center of the table was a tape recorder. The two guests talked about the politics of the Middle East, living conditions back home, and reactions to September 11. First, an exchange about Yassir Arafat draws this thought:

(Gillely) “I think Arafat is in a very, very dangerous situation himself.”
(Tarrent) “I think so too.”
(Gillely) “And as I said, he’s a very experienced politician. He’s like a fox. And he’s on the run¿. And in a way, not so many Israelis understand Arafat as I think I understand him, in a way. Because I look at the thing differently. One of the problems people have¿.”

(Charnoff) At one point the conversation becomes so sensitive that they decide to turn of the recorder. Kotto, like most of the Palestinians in the group, is nervous about his name being used, or having certain quotes attributed to him.

As the dinner continues, the Tarrents consider a comparison between life here and there:

(Jerry Tarrent) “You know it’s all relative¿. Marcus has to worry about the safety of his family, you know – the physical safety¿. And yet here our concerns are much smaller but yet they’re important to us because that’s what we’re in right now.”
(Bonnie Tarrent) “It’s relative, everything is relative.”

(Charnoff) And Kotto provides a lighter moment:

(Kotto) “In Israel there’s a saying about the Jews. There is five very smart Jews along the history. And the first one was Moses, says, ‘Everything should be by the law.’ The second was Jesus, says, ‘Everything is love.’ The third one was Freud, said ‘Everything is sex.'” (Sound of laughter) “The fourth one was Marx, said ‘Everything is money.’ But the smartest person was Albert Einstein, said ‘Everything is relative,’ so I guess everything is relative.” (Laughter, “That’s great.”)

(Charnoff) Friendships were begun in the U.S. that will be difficult to maintain back home. Iris Goren is a doctor from Tel Aviv. She says there’s little hope for a team reunion, but that the group will try to stay in touch by e-mail. Goren says the most important goal is to pass on their experience to the children they coach:

(Iris Goren) “I would like to see the connection between us keep going, and I want to see every one of us teaching his kids that he coach, and telling them we know the people on the other side. And calming them when they are very anxious about the things that are going on. And this is the next generation that maybe will bring peace one day.”

(Charnoff) Team Middle East won their game against UVM. They return home with renewed hope. Palestinian and Israeli peace, one game at a time:

(Schwarzman) “The game was great, we had lots of fun¿. We play together very nicely, the Israelis and Palistineans, we get along very good¿.”

(UVM player) “I thought it was an awesome time. It was a beautiful thing to have people come from all over the world and play against you.”

(Heffez) “You know we took ten days from our life, and we are now happier than we was before. Simple as that.”

(Sound of game announcer) How about a big hand for both teams for participating in today’s Friendship Game.” (Sound of applause, cheering)

(Charnoff) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Neal Charnoff in Burlington.

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