Footballers whose goal is peace in Israel

A international organisation is using football to bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs - and improve their shooting skills at the same time. We went to a training session in Sussex

By Anne Joseph, April 14, 2011
Arab and Jewish sports coaches learning to play together at the Football 4 Peace  Brighton University

Arab and Jewish sports coaches learning to play together at the Football 4 Peace Brighton University

A group of men and women in tracksuits and coloured bibs are dribbling footballs through cones, whooping and exchanging high-fives as they complete a circuit. It is a common enough sight on pitches up and down the country, but this training session, taking place at Brighton University's Chelsea School of Sport in Eastbourne, is different. It features 54 Arab and Jewish community sports coaches who travelled to the UK from Israel, along with 12 others from Jordan and nine from Ireland. They have joined 60 volunteer trainers from universities in England and Germany to take part in a five-day specialised camp run by Football 4 Peace (F4P).

According to its mission statement, F4P aims to help build bridges in divided neighbourhoods, by training coaches in its "unique methodology, which promotes values such as respect, equity, trust, responsibility and inclusion". Put simply, it uses football sessions and team-building exercises to bring Arab and Jew together. Once the coaches return to Israel they transfer what they have learnt by running regular mixed football teams with local Arab and Jewish children.

F4P also works with refugees and children in Jordan and children from either side of the border in Ireland. Partially funded by the EU, the training is also designed to prepare volunteers for the main summer camp in Israel and Jordan in July.

"By doing this I really believe that we can change ideas," says Mohammed Yousef, a sports manager in Dabouria, an Arab village in northern Israel and the person instrumental in bringing the Jordanian coaches to the project. "I've been involved in F4P for six years and I see a difference - for the good."

Although he has many Jewish friends and colleagues, and Dabouria has frequent contact with its Jewish neighbours, Yousef admits that encouraging the children to attend is not always straightforward because "initially people can be suspicious", but once they do, "it's easy. Everyone likes sport."

F4P was founded in 2001. Last year over 1,500 children aged between 10-14 from 36 communities in Israel participated in the programme. Its approach has been developed by a "coalition of partners" including The British Council Israel, the University of Brighton, the Israel Sports Authority and Sports University in Cologne.

According to its director, Professor John Sugden, there is "nothing specific about sport that makes it successful - it's how you handle it and what values you give it. We thought hard about how we could use the sports curriculum to generate the kind of ideas that the kids could use. Football is the pull but it's not the only thing that we do. Our programmes use several activities such as orienteering, swimming and other games. Anything to get more and more contact."

In Eastbourne it is only the first day of the course and already mixed groups of coaches are engaged in team building and trust exercises. In the gym one set is using a Kin-Ball; a participant stands on top of the large pink ball and tries to walk, relying on the ability of the rest of the group to work together in order to push the ball along.

"Co-operation is what makes it work," says Shiri Harroch. She is a PE and gymnastics teacher in Regba, northern Israel, and this is the second time she has attended the training course. "I remember it being so much fun. Right from the beginning you are working in teams. In one game you fall and you know that your partner is going to catch you. In another a person is wearing a blindfold and you have to trust that he or she is going to help you in whatever task you have to do."

Harroch has also taken part in a F4P summer camp which was, "awesome. Really". She strongly believes that the teaching of trust and co-operation games has a direct influence in how Arab and Jewish children can communicate together on (and off) a football pitch. She sees the same process occurring between the coaches during the training. "You forget race, you forget the divide," she says.

However, the political situation inevitably affects what the coaches can achieve. Ghazi Nujidat, project manager for the Israel Sports Authority, explains: "In 2006 when rockets were coming from Lebanon we had to cancel F4P activities at the last minute."

Harroch hopes that the children she works with will maintain the values that they learn as they get older, but she acknowledges that there are times when politics can get in the way of what she is trying to do. "A couple of weeks ago an incident happened in my village and I had to try to put all politics aside and continue with the job," she says.

Yousef agrees that it can be difficult but says that continuing with the project is vital as part of the solution to the division between Jews and Arabs. But he also voices frustration at the media's apparent lack of interest in reporting "peaceful work, but if an Arab kills a Jew the press descend to see what's happening".

Veteran coach, Eli Fractovnic, has been involved with F4P in Misgav in the Galil since the project began. "In the beginning we had a dream but we didn't know exactly how to achieve it. We knew that football was not the point, it was how the children behaved without the ball."

He has seen many changes since those early days. Parents have altered their views as a result of their children's involvement, he says, and some of the children who grew up with the project are now coaches; a scenario that he hopes will continue.

In the last three years F4P has expanded to other areas of the country and programmes now exist in the south of Israel and around Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem. Future plans include a F4P league. According to Fractovnic: "People can and have changed how they think about each other. It's happening."

Last updated: 12:01pm, April 14 2011