Friday, June 20, 2008

Football Saves The World!

Esteemed lensman Peter Dench, having a kickabout with the Druze, yesterday.

Israel versus Syria: with a football

The pitch is scruffy, with bare patches of earth. The crowd is desultory: half a dozen lads, yawning in the winter sunshine of the Judean hills.
As football games go, this is as ordinary as it gets. And yet this apparently insignificant fixture, in the Jerusalem dormitory town of Mevaseret, might be a glimpse of rare good news from the Middle East. Indeed it could go down in history as an unlikely turning point - like the pingpong diplomacy that ended the Asian cold war.
The home team is Katamon Abu Ghosh. The club was founded by onetime Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, with the express intention of uniting Israeli Jews and Arabs. All three youth squads, attached to the club, combine Arab and Jewish players. The management of the club is equally ecumenical.
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? At last a big bus sweeps in. And the first person who alights is a woman with a white veil.
She is a Druze. From the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. And her son is a member of the first ever Syrian-born sports team to play in Israel.
Liel explains the backstory:
'These people, the Druze team, 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; if that happens its possible these people will be shot by the Syrian government, as Israeli spies. Yet they have come here, anyway, to play football. As a gesture of peace. That shows great courage.'
The match is part of a wider process of conciliation between Syria and Israel, centred on the thorny problem of the Golan Heights. For three years, Alon Liel has been conducting secret negotiations with Damascus insiders. The aim is that Israel can be persuaded to hand back the Golan; in return Syria will make peace with Jerusalem - and desist from supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.
It's a long and arduous road. But Liel is optimistic. 'These Druze would never have been allowed to come here without the tacit permission of Damascus. I see this match as a smile from Syria.'
At first there are not many smiles on the faces of the young Druze players. But as the match unfolds, everyone starts to relax. At halftime the friends and relatives of the Druze players hand out sweetmeats 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.
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 anywhere, we do not have Israeli passports, nor do we have Syrian passports. But we are very happy to be here today.'
He turns and cheers. The final result is 7-1; the Israeli team hope to do better in the return match.
But as the players troop off, chattering and laughing, it's possible to discern a wider message than a simple sporting victory. It is a rare message of hope. Maybe peace begins not with politicians signing grandiose treaties in palatial halls: but with a shy Arab woman handing out Syrian pastries, to a bunch of smiling Jewish kids, on a scruffy football pitch.

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