Thanks to Australian rules football, some Israeli and Palestinian youths have begun to view one another for their personalities—and not their politics.
Sadek Shanina (right) and Majd Awad strategize before a game. (Photo: Yonatan Belik
A group of 20-something men have taken over a stretch of grass in the largest park in Jerusalem late on a Sunday evening. From far away, it’s near impossible to figure out what they might be doing. They are throwing a ball, so it can’t be soccer, but the ball is egg shaped, so it can’t be basketball. There are four cylindrical posts — two larger and two smaller on the inside — but there’s no horizontal post across, so it can’t be rugby.
A running path loops around their dimly lit practice space, which is bordered by a playground on one end and a major street on the other. The guys set up orange cones a few feet apart and begin sprinting back and forth.
“When I say ‘Peace,’ you say ‘Team!’” someone yells, and the team responds. Everyone is speaking English, which is no one’s first language.
This is Australian rules football in the capital of Israel, an unlikely sport with an even more unlikely roster. “Footy” is not popular in this country. Neither is casual friendship between Jews and Arabs, particularly after the past six months of violence, and particularly among men in their early to mid-20s. But the roster of the Jerusalem Peace Team Lions is a mix of Israelis and Palestinians who joined just as much for the sport as they did for the opportunity to interact with the other side.
In the 10 months or so since the grassroots team came together, these players — Israelis fresh out of mandatory army service and Palestinians most likely to be profiled as they journey from the east side of town — have gathered for monthly barbecues and weekly practices. They traveled to Croatia together in October for the Axios European Cup.
A rash of individual terror attacks started just a few months after the Peace Team’s first practice. In this city, tension is omnipresent. Both sides seem destined to tussle forever through periods of unrest and superficial peace. But regardless of the news, players begin to arrive at the park around 10 p.m. each Sunday. Attendance fluctuates based on whether an attack in the West Bank or Old City has Arab participants nervous to travel to the Jewish side of town. Players strip off their street clothes to don red and yellow Peace Team uniforms printed with a lion. They begin to practice passing and punting. They end each practice with a chant: “We’ve been fighting forever, now we’re united together, two nations playing as one to reach our goal.”
“We are not pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. We are pro-peace, pro-cooperation, pro-trust.”
At a brisk practice in February, Majd Awad stands on the sideline, injured but still invested. Awad, a Palestinian player from east Jerusalem, once had a phobia of kippahs, the round, cloth cap worn by practicing Jewish males. He would see one and quickly envision a physical attack or a racist taunt. That was five years ago. Now, he enthusiastically embraces a kippah-wearing teammate who approaches him as practice begins.
“The thing I like about the Peace Team is the ability to separate life between the macro and the micro,” he says.
“On the macro level, how it is to be living with post-traumatized people,” Awad says, referring to the Israelis, and how past traumas have led to policy that impacts his life as a Palestinian today. “And on the micro, they’re amazing people. They’re scared too; they don’t want to be stabbed. With the Peace Team, you can show that as an individual, we all have the same interests and hopes. We all want to live normal lives.”
A generation often shamed for prioritizing the self over all else is using individualism to interact peacefully in a way that evaded their predecessors. Through sport, they’ve begun to separate the person from the politics of their nation.
The use of “sports for peace” is not new, and it is not unique to Israel. Progressive-minded Israeli and Arab youth can choose from soccer, basketball, and running, among other sports, to gain experience with the “other side.” It’s unlikely that Arab-Israeli sports teams can precipitate a grand change in policy, but on a person-to-person level, it seems to work.
“Shared identity,” “fellowship,” and “re-humanization” are buzzwords from the Sport for Development and Peace, an athletics-focused branch of the United Nations; a 2013 study from Mifalot, the largest sport development program in the Middle East, found that Palestinian children reported a 35 percent increase in their trust in all or most Jewish Israelis, and Jewish children reported a 20.5 percent increase in trust of the other side after mixed athletic programming.
In 2014, at the U.N.’s 69th general assembly, a resolution was adopted that “recognizes and reinforces the role of sport in driving social change.” A high school team, for example, develops a unique identity based on tradition, sayings, cheers, and superstitions. That same sort of fellowship in an area of a conflict allows people from opposing sides to create a “shared ritual identity,” as Sport for Development & Peace calls it. The same report identifies the major keys to “sport for peace” initiatives as building relationships, connecting individuals to communities, using sport as a communications platform, and creating a space for dialogue. A team is a neutral space that fosters communication and relationships, which in turn can break down long-held biases.
Most of the programs in Israel are funded by larger organizations and targeted at youth. Australian rules football in Israel started out similarly in 2008 as a joint project between the Australian Football League, Al Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue, and the Peres Center for Peace.
Yonatan Belik was 18 then, months from beginning his mandatory army service, when he got a call from a family friend with an offer: Was he interested in joining a footy team in Israel?
Belik was ecstatic. He was born to Australian parents who immigrated to Israel shortly before his birth. In Victoria, where his parents are from, Australian rules football is the most popular sport, and he’d grown up watching games. He immediately accepted the offer.
But there was a catch. The team would include Palestinians from the West Bank and Jaffa, an Arab city south of Tel Aviv. Belik had never met a Palestinian; he had never had a chance to engage with the other side. Since he was a child, he had feared being shot in his sleep from the window, or imagined how he might one day escape from a blown-up bus. Palestinians were a people he knew only through what he heard in the media and his community in the context of terrorism. The Peace Team allowed him to interact one-on-one, to humanize the other, and to have a “positive, impactful experience” with Palestinians, he says.
Eventually, the AFL-funded program disbanded, and Belik started studying at Hebrew University, which sits atop Isawiya, one of the tenser Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. There are four entrances in and out of the neighborhood. When violence rises, three of the roads are often blockaded, making necessary and personal travel difficult for residents.
Israelis Adam Fink (left), Ethan Nechemia (right) and Yonatan Belik (rear left) and Palestinian Sadek Shanina (rear right) bump and pump up each other up before a game. (Photo: Yonatan Belik
The daily bus ride to campus wound around Isawiya. Speaking about the town and the conflict it represents, Belik says “you can choose to look down upon it and ignore it, or acknowledge it.” He went the latter route.
He decided to re-start the Peace Team and began advertising on campus, where the student body is about 25 percent Palestinian but socially segregated.
So many other peace programs fall into specific categories, Belik says, and carry some sort of message. Sports programs are mainstream enough to draw people from all sides of the political spectrum.
“We are not pro-Palestine or pro-Israel,” Belik says. “We are pro-peace, pro-cooperation, pro-trust.”
Awad showed up with his cousin, who in turn brought friends. Israelis came out to play. The team chose to speak only English to make sure no one had an explicit language advantage. Australian rules football requires 18 players on each side and an oval pitch anywhere from 25 to 75 meters longer than a soccer field, and players aim to kick the ball through the two taller goal posts.
“There’s something special about learning a sport together from zero as a team,” says Ethan Nehemiah, an Israeli player. “It’s different than playing soccer, where everyone comes from some background.”
Unlike soccer or basketball, one star can’t dominate a game. The sport is physical and engaging, and if a team does not have full cooperation, it cannot succeed, Belik says.
“You have to put yourself on the line,” he explains. “If you’re not willing to put your body on the line for others, you’re not fit to play the game.”
You have to be loud. You have to communicate with your team. You have to be willing to tackle, and you have to protect your teammate, regardless of his religion or ethnicity.
“It’s perfect to use our bodies not to fight, but to practice sports,” Nehemiah says.
There are cultural differences to skirt around, issues like timeliness and pre-game preparations. Traveling together is another issue. When they went to Europe in the fall, the Israelis were directly exposed to the rigorous security that the Palestinians face regularly—a mentally and logistically taxing experience that the Israelis never would have fully understood without the Peace Team.
“Some people are sarcastic about it,” Awad says. “They say, ‘You think you’re going to bring peace?’ I’m not trying to show that there is peace. I’m trying to show that if there is peace, it will look like this.”