Mifalot is an Israeli NGO which brings together children from all backgrounds through football
Runs over 600 projects worldwide including schemes in Cameroon, Rwanda and Haiti
Abbas Suan, most famous Israeli-Arab footballer, backs new scheme to tackle racism
Miriam Abu-Ghanem is the "female Maradona" of the Bedouin community
Yael Lee-Weiss shakes her head the moment the words “boycott” and “Beitar Jerusalem” are uttered in her direction.
With the football world’s attention on Israel as it hosts the European Under-21 Championship Finals, the country’s image and politics are both very much to the fore.
For a woman who spends each and every moment combating racism and discrimination, last February’s incident when Beitar fans burnt down the club’s administrative offices in protest at the signing of two Chechen Muslims still rankles.
Beitar, a club with fiercely right-wing fans, is infamous for its racist attitude towards Arab players, but the severity of the attack still caused surprise.
“It’s about education and showing these people that their views will not be tolerated,” she told CNN in Tel Aviv.
“It’s why I do what I do. It’s why Mifalot is here.”
Mifalot, an initiative backed by one of the biggest club sides in Israel, Hapoel Tel Aviv, brings together children from all backgrounds – not just across Israel and the Palestinian territories, but from countries across the world.
The non-governmental organization, which has a center at Hapoel’s training ground, runs over 300 projects across the globe including Angola, Benin, India, Rwanda, Cameroon and Haiti.
Backed by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli parliament, and funded by a host of charities from around the world, Mifalot uses the power of football to educate the next generation.
It offers a civil service program for those who are not able – or allowed – to enter the Israeli Army at the age of 18, instead giving them the opportunity to earn a qualification as a sports coach and secure employment.
Arabs, Jews, Bedouins, Druze all take part, while there is a program dedicated to those members with special needs.
The scheme has won great acclaim and has given hope to those who grew up when the idea of such a scheme would have seemed like a far-fetched dream.
Time for change
“I think the younger generation wants to make a change,” Lee-Weiss said.
“From a very young age, they have an open mind and they don’t have any inhibitions. Sometimes, they are coming from a background where they need this scheme.
“We just capture the power of football and the love that children and adults have for the sport, and we are trying to educate them and give them values. They are very curious about knowing each other. We are neighbors, Arabs and Jews. The kids are curious because they hear a lot of things but they haven’t always met an Arab or a Jew and seen things with their own eyes.
“They might not have spoken to people outside of their circle but when they get to know each other, they just speak in a non-formal way without any thoughts which we see elsewhere in society.”
Another example of integration is Israel’s national Under-21 team. While it failed to progress from the group stage of the international tournament – the final of which was won by Spain on Tuesday – its impact off the field should not be underestimated.
A squad including five Israeli-Arab players, two Ethiopians and a Bedouin brought attention to how, in even the most volatile regions, sport can break through barriers.
Several Arab players have represented Israel in the past, with the likes of Rifaat Turk, Walid Badir, Zahi Armeli and – perhaps most famously due to his goal in a 2006 World Cup qualifier – Abbas Suan having all worn the blue shirt.
While Arab players do not sing the Israeli national anthem, essentially an ode to the Jewish homeland, they also refrain from speaking in their native tongue during training to avoid dividing the group.
Israel’s hosting of the U21 tournament has been mired in controversy, with protests against the country’s treatment of Palestinians.
But while the politics are debated off the pitch and around the world, the players appear happy with the progress being made.
“It’s a great honor for me to represent Israel,” Munas Dabbur, an Israeli Arab striker who plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv, told CNN.
“I always felt that I was proud to be invited to the team and I want it to continue.
“I think this tournament can be really important for football in Israel. It’s the first time we’ve had games like this in the country and there’s been a huge push. I hope that this will continue in the future.”
It is a sentiment echoed by his Jewish teammates.
Omri Altman, 19, plays his football in England with Premier League club Fulham and says the pictures he sees on television bear little resemblance to the country he calls “home.”
“My friends at Fulham think, ’ Israel, oh, it’s very scary.’ They don’t want to come here to visit because they hear in the news about the things which happen here,” Altman said.
“But it’s different. You come here, it’s very quiet in most of the areas. So when teams come to play here, I hope the whole world will see that.
“I think it’s very important that the tournament has come to Israel.
“In our team, we’re all friends and everybody is the same. We are all people, it doesn’t matter where we come from and who we are. We come to play football and that’s the most important thing.”
These words would have been noted by the next generation of talent, young hopefuls who have been watching an international football tournament in their own backyard for the very first time.
While Altman and Dabur were busy on the pitch, hundreds of young children were given free tickets to watch the games.
Some of those were from Mifalot. They hope that the example set by their nation’s young footballers can spread a message beyond the country’s borders.
While the U21 players were busy playing in modern stadiums, hundreds of others were running around fields, concrete courts and dirt tracks pretending to be an international footballer.
“I think that this project is great,” said Nasser, a Palestinian coordinator in Sussiya, in the West Bank.
“The activities and interaction greatly helped the kids get to know others who are different and to play together as one group.