Can hoop dreams help bridge Israeli-Palestinian divide?

CNN  — 

As the sirens went off over Jerusalem, two families on opposite sides of the city rushed to their air-raid shelters.

While the world watched on as bombs rained down on Gaza and rockets flew into Israel last year, one Israeli girl and one Palestinian girl grabbed their phones.

“My family and I were gathered in our shelter and the next thing I know is that I’ve got a text message from my Palestinian friend,” Toot, a 17-year-old Israeli told CNN.

“She’s sitting in her shelter with her family and she’s asking if I’m alright and if everybody is OK.

“It was amazing. For a Palestinian girl to text an Israeli girl and ask if everything is alright? It’s showing that we’re creating something different.”

Toot is just one of a handful of teenagers who is involved in Jerusalem-based basketball project, PeacePlayers International.

For the past three years she has played with Palestinian and Israeli girls of her own age in a program which helps bring together youths from different backgrounds.

But that hasn’t been easy given what has been happening in Gaza over the past year.

More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the conflict. The United Nations estimates that more than 70% were civilians.

Seventy-one Israelis – 66 of them soldiers – were killed, the United Nations reported. A foreign worker in Israel was also killed.

“The last event was the bloodiest I’d ever known,” Duha, one of the basketball coaches, told CNN.

Duha is a 19-year-old Palestinian woman living in the Beit Safafra neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

“It was the worst war I’d ever known and it touched us in many ways,” said Duha. “My friends and family were all affected. I was avoiding speaking Arabic in the streets because it was that bad.

“My brother lost his job too. He is Palestinian but worked for an Israeli company. We had really bad troubles everywhere.”

Since the age of six, Duha has been playing basketball with Israeli girls of her own age – and they have become firm friends.

It’s a friendship that has been tested and found to be strong

“We felt empathy for each other,” she said of last year’s events.

“They felt bad for all the people who died in Gaza and I felt sorry for the soldiers. I never thought I’d ever feel like that before.”

Duha, who is now a qualified coach and works with the under-14 section, speaks near-perfect English and has learned Hebrew while working with PeacePlayers.

When she began playing as a child, the language barrier was a frustration as was the suspicion which greeted her participation.

Duha says that many of her friends were forced to leave the program by their parents who believed girls should not participate in sports.

“They don’t think we have a future in sport and think it’s a waste of time and eventually we will marry, have kids and so sport is irrelevant.”

“They think we should stay at home, learn to cook, do the cleaning and take care of the home,” she adds with more than a hint of disdain.

Duha says her father was approached by neighbors demanding his daughter leave the program, while others were upset by her refusal to conform.

In the program, Arab and Jewish children between the ages of six and 15 regularly play in mixed teams and take part in educational and life skill sessions as well as field trips and basketball competitions.

There are leadership courses and training available for all graduates conducted in Hebrew and Arabic. Classes include basketball, resolution training and learning foreign languages.

Participants on the specially-designed coaching program will complete 228 hours of practical and theoretical coursework and basketball training, 58 hours of resolution training and foreign language instruction.

“This past summer was difficult for both sides,” Aysha, a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, told CNN.

“Even though there was a war, I was still in contact with my Jewish friends. We would constantly message and call each other.

“Most of our programming stopped so we didn’t get a chance to see each other much, which was hard.

“The war was during Ramadan and we had an Iftar, breaking of the fast, together – we were all so excited to see each other.”

Aysha began playing basketball with the organization in 2006 with each of her three younger sisters having also joined up since.

Now 20, Aysha freely admits that she once carried “a lot of prejudices” towards Jews.

“I knew Jews to be the people to stop and harass me and my family at check points and as the people who wanted to do us harm,” she said.

“After some time with PeacePlayers and the joint activities and practices between Arabs and Jews – I slowly began to get to know the Jewish participants better.

“It was one of the first times I had positive and meaningful interactions with Jews.”

PeacePlayers has programs across the world including in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and South Africa.

The project in Israel, which receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development and the US State Department, has been the subject of much admiration with numbers increasing as the word spreads.

“I have seen Palestinians on the train, on the streets, but I never understood that they were people like me,” said Toot.

“I thought they were other people. Only getting to know them now as people, I’ve realized they’re just like me, go to school, play basketball and have the same teenage problems.

At 17, Toot is now nearing the time where she must enlist for national service with the Israeli army.

By law, Israelis are required to join the army at the age of 18 barring any special dispensation.

“What does it look like from their perspective? I had a conversation with my Palestinian friend – she said something that really hit me.

“When she goes to a checkpoint, the behavior of the soldiers isn’t always very nice. She said she’d rather have people in checkpoints like me who understand the situation and see people as human beings instead of someone who looks like [at] them as a piece of trash.

In bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, PeacePlayers’ achievements have already captured the attention of the White House

In October 2014, a delegation from Jerusalem traveled to Washington DC where they played on the President’s basketball court.

National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice hosted the group and spoke of her experience following the meeting on the South Lawn court.

“The teamwork these young people show on the court underscores just how much the dreams and aspirations of young people all around the world are the same” Rice wrote on her blog.

“It helps demonstrate that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible, and within reach. The youth are our future, and they want and deserve to live in peace and security.”

Rebecca Ross grew up in Givat Ze’ev, a settlement in the West Bank, during the second Intifada.

As a child, she moved from Miami, Florida, to Israel in 1997 with her family and endured a complete culture shock.

“I was taught to ‘hate’ Arabs,” she told CNN.

“I never had any activities which included Arabs, nor did I have any lectures about peace or living together with Arabs. We had nothing.”

As part of a religious family, Ross says she was brought up to believe that the land was holy and belonged to the Jewish people only.

During the violence, her classmate’s mother was killed during a terrorist attack, while one of her neighbors, a soldier, was killed.

“I woke up every day with the fear of having a suicide bomber deciding to explode on my bus to school,” she recalled.

“I used to see every Arab on the street as a terrorist, I suspected every Arab man, woman and even children.

“I grew up convinced that Arabs were the enemy and were bad people who just wanted to kill us.”

Like many of the girls, Ross had not encountered Palestinians before joining PeacePlayers.

Now, as the coach of the All-Star team which includes Israeli and Palestinian girls between the ages of 14-16, she says her attitudes have been transformed.

While she readily admits that her preconceptions remained in the opening month after her arrival in September 2014, she says that the opportunity to embrace another culture should be taken with both hands.

“I’m very grateful to have this opportunity to learn about Arab culture and I’ve even started taking Arabic lessons,” she said.

“No matter who you are and where you come from, once you get to know someone personally, without any borders, there is no limit to where it might take you.

“I had so much hate in me that just grew gradually with the years, I never thought something like PeacePlayers will actually make a difference.

“I guess when you come from love, and basketball is my passion, anything is possible

“It still amazes me that my players don’t even know this, but I was influenced from these girls tremendously.”

While the prospect of peace remains elusive, hope remains.

“I always believe that the work we do might take 20 years or even 100 years,” said Duha.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step and that’s what we’ve started.

“Maybe one day people will see the enormity of the situation and they will be able to change things.

“Playing basketball in the streets can help bring change. When I grow up with my experience I will know the other side really well and will be friends with them.

“It makes me feel proud of myself. I know I’m in the right place and perhaps one day my friends will agree with me and that we can change something.

“Maybe, in 20 years or after I die, something will happen but I really hope from the bottom of my heart that something will happen.”