After a traumatic summer of war and death, Israeli and Palestinian children squared off on Monday for games of soccer, just kilometres away from the devastated Gaza Strip.
About 80 boys aged between six and 16 met for the tournament at the playing fields of the Dorot kibbutz in southern Israel, which had been struck by rockets from Gaza during the 50-day war.
The Israeli children came from villages surrounding the besieged Palestinian enclave, while the Palestinians were bused in from Yatta in the southern West Bank.
The tournament was part of an initiative launched 12 years ago and aimed at bringing together Palestinians from Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and disaffected Israeli youths.
Many of the boys had played together before at other such gatherings organized by the Peres Center for Peace, which is run by former Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Monday’s soccer came nearly a week after a ceasefire ended the Gaza war, and allowed Israeli children to return to their homes.
Initial apprehension was obvious on both sides, but the young players’ enthusiasm for the game soon took over.
The war in Gaza killed more than 2,140 Palestinians — one-quarter of them children — and 71 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers, but also a four-year-old boy.
“It’s great to come back here after weeks stuck at home during the war, and to have some fun,” said 11-year-old Ofir from Sderot in southern Israel, one of the towns most hit by Gaza rocket fire.
“The Arab kids aren’t mean, and there are some who want peace like me,” the curly-haired blond boy said.
Eleven-year-old Qusay agreed.
“I like it when we play together. I hope one day there will be peace between Jews and Arabs, and no more war or death,” he said.
The Palestinian children had traveled for three hours by bus, and were stopped by an Israeli army checkpoint and searched by soldiers. For some, it was their first such experience.
However, any feelings of animosity they may have had toward their Israeli hosts appeared to evaporate as they put on their soccer shoes and ran out on to the pitch.
Peres, who stepped down as Israel’s ninth president in July, made a rare public appearance to help start the day and support the event.
“You won’t be playing against each other, but with each other,” the 90-year-old Nobel Laureate told the boys, holding a soccer ball. “You’re the generation of tomorrow. Show us how to play together, how to live together, because you are children of peace — the children who chose sport over violence.”
Meir Azram, one of the coordinators of the project, said the soccer initiative aims to help children learn to live together by playing together.
“In 12 years, we’ve seen war and tension, but we know how to deal with that,” Azram said.
“The adult trainers from both sides sit down together and say what they’ve lived through, then it’s down to the kids to bond” through sport, Azram said.
Since its inception in east Jerusalem, the project has been extended to include children from 15 schools on both sides of Israel’s vast separation barrier that cuts off the West Bank.
Monday’s tournament followed some of the worst violence in a decade.
As Israeli missiles rained down on Gaza for 50 days and Palestinian rockets soared back over the border, the army carried out many arrests and clashed in violent stand-offs with West Bank Palestinians protesting against the operation.