Wars, diplomacy and mediation have failed to bring peace to the region. The cloud of failed accords hover over the area.
Not everyone has given up hope. A handful of brave and visionary people think the answer may lie, believe it or not, in basketball, specifically a nascent program called Playing for Peace.
Before the most recent hostilities began, ESPN.com sent Chad Ford, a professor of international conflict resolution at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and an ESPN basketball writer, to Israel on May 1-9 to check out PFP in action. What he saw was complicated, risky and hopeful.
You'd expect it to be like this:
Khaled, 14, is supposed to be kneeling in a mosque, praying to the East five times a day. He's from Issawiya, a gritty Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. At night, he sneaks out of the house and works by candlelight in a bombed-out factory, helping to build explosive devices for attacks on Israel or maybe the United States. His life is a palette of dust and dirt.
He prays that Allah will avenge him, will give him back the home, the life, the hope that his parents lost in 1967.
Hate is supposed to consume him. When he graduates from school, he'll have no job, no prospects. His life is over before it begins. The script has been written. Just play the part and go to Allah in a blaze of fire and smoke, where 40 virgin brides await.
You'd expect it to be like this:
Pini, 14, is supposed to be going to school, getting a good Hebrew education. He's from Bet Shemesh, an Israeli Jew from a poor suburb west of Jerusalem. He'll serve in the Israeli military for two years, then go on to college. He'll become a doctor, maybe a lawyer.
He prays at night that God will protect him, allow him to keep his home, the life, the hope his parents achieved in 1967.
Hate is supposed to consume him, too. Someday, he'll build a three-bedroom house with a safe room in it. The walls of that room will be made of cinderblock, two feet thick, and guarded by a steel door and an Uzi on the bookshelf.
You'd never expect it to be like this:
Pini dribbles the basketball through his legs in a dimly lit high school gym in Shemesh. His defender stumbles, literally faked out of his yarmulke. As Pini penetrates to the basket, the defense collapses. Pini spins and finds Khaled with a perfect pass on the baseline.
Khaled rises from the court. His shot glides off his hand and through a crooked, netless rim. His arm above his head as he falls away, he turns and smiles. As he jogs back down the court, Pini raises his hand. With a little hop, Khaled jumps up and smacks it.
Two worlds collide, but there is no blood or charred soil. Glass and body parts aren't littered throughout the scene just 50 Israelis and Palestinians cheering in the stands, playing on the court, coaching on the sidelines.
Trying to get along.
There are eight kids on the bus with me: four Palestinians Khaled, Mohammed, Ahmed, Saleh; four Israelis Pini, Atiel, Seamon, David. They are going to a professional basketball game together. Neither group really speaks the other's language, but Arabic and Hebrew are close enough, with some broken English mixed in, that they manage to communicate. Khaled and Pini pass the time e-mailing MP3s of 50 Cent and pictures of Shakira to each other on their cell phones. Khaled wraps an arm around Pini, holds out his camera and takes a picture.
My phone goes off. The ringer is set to the Bouncing Souls' soccer anthem, "Ole!" By the third "ole," the kids, both Palestinian and Israeli, are singing along in unison.
Sitting in the back are Tomer, an Israeli settler from just outside Jericho, and Basil, a Palestinian shopkeeper from Issawiya. They've volunteered to coach for a new organization in Israel Playing for Peace that has developed a creative approach to bridging differences through the game of basketball. The philosophy is simple, yet profound. Kids who play together learn how to live together.
Tonight, the kids are meeting off the court for a trip to see two of Israel's top pro teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Rishon, square off. If the PFP kids on the bus were like any other kids from Israel, they'd be decked out in yellow tonight. Maccabi Tel Aviv is not only the most popular sports team in Israel but, for many young Israelis, the real god of Israel. The team has just won two straight Euroleague titles and, on game night, Israel usually is draped in yellow and blue.
But Khaled and Pini are not like many other kids from Israel. Tonight, they aren't attending the game to cheer for Maccabi Tel Aviv. It's Maccabi Rishon that will earn their affection.
Matt Minoff, a Cherry Hill, N.J., native who played college ball at Yale, is a starting guard for Rishon. Professional basketball players, especially young ones like Minoff, are supposed to be living the life nightclubs, women, fame, money, glory.
Minoff, though, is also the managing director of PFP-Middle East, spending up to 12 hours a day traveling around Israel running basketball workouts and providing training for coaches in the program. He drives a squatty white Opel Corsa, with advertising for the Maccabi Rishon team and its sponsors plastered on every square inch. His office is the spare bedroom in his modest apartment in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. Each Rishon home game, Minoff rents a bus to pick up a handful of PFP players, provides pizza for them at his apartment and gives the kids a rare opportunity to attend a pro game.
Both gigs are labors of love. "I first fell in love with Israel when I played in the Maccabiah Games in 2001," Minoff says. "Herb Brown was my coach, and there were a lot of guys on the team who played professionally in Israel. I got excited about living there and felt like someday I'd find my way back."
After his college career ended at Yale in 2004, Minoff flew to Israel without a job. He had one month to find a team or return home. "I just started trying out for every team in Israel," he says. "It was hard. I felt I was good enough, but everywhere I went, they passed. It took me a month before I finally clawed my way onto Maccabi Rishon."
Minoff spent much of his first season there as the 12th man but came on strong at the end of the season and earned a contract for the next season. In Year 2, things changed. A new coach and a new management philosophy that emphasized defense and hard work landed Minoff a starting job on one of Israel's best teams.
In Israel, Minoff is known as "the hustle guy." He has scabs on his knees and court burns on his forearms. He's the Shane Battier of Europe and relishes the role. He'll stroke it from 3-point range effortlessly for hours before the game. But once the ball is tipped, he has to be wide open before he even thinks about pulling the trigger.
Minoff also has Battier's brain. Even basketball players have to be smart at places like Yale. Minoff spent time in college studying military conflict and history. What he learned reframed the world for him. "I realized how much suffering there was out there and wondered what I might be able to do to help alleviate it," Minoff says. "I was pretty naive about so many things. When I came to Israel, my family was worried about my safety. I realized that there are so many sides to this conflict that you never see in the U.S. It was a rude awakening."
It wasn't long before Minoff pitched an idea to PFP co-founders Brendan and Sean Tuohey in Washington D.C. The Tuoheys actually had recruited Minoff to work on a program in South Africa while he was still at Yale. Minoff had something bigger in mind.
"I just saw that Israelis and Palestinians share this tiny little space in the world," he says. "But they don't actually talk to or know each other. There are two separate worlds here crammed into close proximity. I thought that Playing for Peace could provide opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to interact with each other."
Within a week, Sean Tuohey was on a plane to Israel, Minoff was named managing director and they had recruited another American playing in Israel, Ryan Lexer, to help in the cause. Playing for Peace-Middle East was born.
Founded by the Tuohey brothers in 2001, PFP's goal is to bridge divides in polarized communities through the game of basketball. PFP started work in Northern Ireland and South Africa in 2001, then launched its program in Israel in 2005. Since its inception, PFP has coached 12,000 10- to 14-year-old Catholic and Protestant children in integrated settings in Northern Ireland, and taught basketball to 25,000 children in Durban, South Africa. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, basketball training is supplemented with programs that promote tolerance, ethnic sensitivity and community leadership training.
A 2005 study of the "Bridging Divides" program in South Africa, conducted by the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State, found that the majority of children exposed to PFP expressed fewer racial stereotypes compared to non-PFP children. A larger proportion of children who participated in PFP also was in favor of racial integration. The early conclusion is that PFP might have a winning model. But would it work in Israel?
Northern Ireland and South Africa are post-conflict societies. In Israel, things haven't been this hot in years.
"Getting started was amazingly difficult," Lexer remembers. "No one trusted anyone. So many people were leery about who we were and what we were trying to accomplish. Groups that come here with the solution to the problems disappear just as quickly as they came. We had to start from scratch."
"We learned from our experiences in Northern Ireland and South Africa that you have to gain the trust of people by learning from the environment and building relationships," Brendan Tuohey says. "Everywhere we go, we look to develop a long-term sustainability plan. Israel is no different. It starts with relationships, then it moves to great basketball training, and eventually we are able to delve into meaningful reconciliation work."
Over the course of the past year, the progress has been impressive. It has 200 kids in the program in eight cities, coaches who run the program on a weekly basis, relationships with important people on both sides of the divide, and the level of basketball play has increased dramatically, Brendan said.
"We're now at the point where the kids have gained enough trust that they are ready to start talking about their differences as well as their shared interests," he said.
Khaled and Pini began playing together five months ago. Attending this pro game is the first time they've done something together off the court. When they walk into the arena, the differences that seemed so insignificant on the bus are magnified in this unfamiliar environment.
Pini watches Maccabi Tel Aviv games regularly and is used to the notorious fan behavior pounding drums, lighting flares, chanting, boisterous singing, a catcall that sounds like a thousand angry locusts on the move. Whether in Durham, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; or Athens, Greece, no fans come close on the decibel scale to Maccabi fans.
Pronouncing it "fun," Pini joins in on a few Hebrew chants. He edges closer to the court as the game goes on, immersed in the action. At the same sights and sounds, Khaled confesses later, his heart quickens. To him, this is enemy territory.
The term "proxy warriors" was coined by political scientist John Hoberman to describe athletes, and with good reason. Nationalism and sports often are intertwined, as sports historically have provided a venue for symbolic competition between nations; sports competition often reflects national conflict. Nations use sports in an effort to prove their strength both to other nations and to their own citizens.
Such zeal can look harmless when you belong to the dominant group. But from the nervous looks Khaled keeps shooting the Maccabi fans, it's clear the Israel-flag-waving zealots on the sideline also can evoke fear.
When the Israeli national anthem begins playing, Pini and the other three Israelis quickly get to their feet and stand at attention. Khaled and his Palestinian friends hesitate. To Khaled and many Palestinians, Israel is an occupying force that has stolen their land and oppressed their people. Do they stand? After a moment of hesitation, Khaled rises from his chair and his teammates follow. His smile is crooked, though. Sweat runs down his forehead. Peacebuilding isn't easy.
As the game progresses, the tensions dissipate and the bonding continues. Kids chatter with each other, pose together for photos and, at one key moment, Mohammed has a discussion with David, an Ethiopian Israeli, about his skull cap. At the last second, Minoff's team upsets Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the PFP kids storm the court. Minoff dances around with David on his shoulders.
An improbable victory on an improbable night.
Unfortunately for Minoff and crew, running PFP isn't always fun and games.
Tul Karem is just a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv, but you might as well be going from L.A. to the moon. Tel Aviv is a modern city that feels more American than European. Glistening skyscrapers line the white sand beaches of Israel's most populous city. Women in G-string bikinis play paddleball on the beaches. Children frolic in the surf. High-end fashion stores line the boardwalk.
On the road east toward Tul Karem, the landscape begins to change from green and tree-lined to sandblasted. Ancient stone and chalky powder bleach the surroundings. Tul Karem itself is a jungle of concrete buildings that haven't been painted or repaired in years. Old men sit outside dilapidated storefronts smoking pipes. Children use the deteriorating streets as soccer fields. Butcher shops line the road to Tul Karem. There, on the concrete sidewalks lie slaughtered goats and cattle, their throats slit. Blood trickles through dust and dirt, down the gutter.
Separating these two worlds is an Israeli checkpoint, one of the institutions feared by Palestinians most in all of Israel. Young soldiers (everyone in Israel is required to serve in the Army, men for three years and women for two years, between the ages of 18 and 22) wear olive green suits with bulletproof vests, M-16s slung over their shoulders. A long line of cars and trucks wait to find out whether they'll be let through that day. Sometimes, getting past is a breeze; other times, you are turned away. No one is ever sure what mood the soldiers will be in.
Tensions are high. The previous week, Israeli forces looking for a suspected jihad militant raided a home in Tul Karem and an innocent Palestinian woman was killed in the gunfire. Though the raids, and the casualties, are common here, security, given recent events, is especially tough.
Palestinians complain bitterly about the checkpoints. They feel like rats trapped in a cage. They are not allowed to enter Israel without permission. It's even against the law for Israelis to enter the West Bank. The only way to get in, or out, is to have a foreign passport, a press card or, if you are Palestinian, some sort of job in Israel.
Matt Quinn, Playing for Peace's program director in the Middle East, says getting in today will be a hit-or-miss proposition. He usually parks his car in a lot near the checkpoint and walks a few hundred yards to the soldiers. Today, even the parking lot is blocked, forcing us to abandon our car on the side of the road and hitch a ride to the gate.
Quinn, a tall, boyish-looking Irish-American ballplayer, cut his teeth at the prestigious St. Thomas More prep school in Connecticut and went on to play four years at Bucknell. He wants to be like his father, Jere, a high school basketball coach. Quinn left for Northern Ireland after finishing at Bucknell and was a point person in developing drills and practices, and in organizing leagues. He has a wonderful touch with the kids and was brought over to help get PFP's program running in Israel.
While he was prepped extensively by PFP before he arrived, no orientation could've prepared him for Tul Karem.
"After having a good experience in Northern Ireland, I really felt like all of the danger is overplayed," Quinn says, earnestly. "Once you are living there, you know your chances of getting killed in a car accident ... outweigh your chances of getting killed by a bomber. But the West Bank? When I first got to this checkpoint, I was like, 'Whoa.'"
Quinn has developed a good rapport with many of the checkpoint guards, but sometimes he's turned away because Israel is running military operations in Tul Karem and the guards don't want him to get hurt. Other times, he suspects the guards might not like what he's doing. Not infrequently, kids and coaches are left hoping Quinn actually will arrive. He might or might not show from week to week.
I have my own second thoughts when the soldiers begin harassing an ABC film crew that's trying to cross the checkpoint with us. An Israeli soldier checking the crew's Land Cruiser opens a door, and a box of heavy equipment falls on her foot. We're off to a bad start. After maybe 20 minutes of negotiation between the ABC producer and the soldiers, Quinn gets out of the car and walks to the checkpoint. He's wearing a tattered St. Thomas More practice jersey and high tops. The Israeli soldier says, "Basketball?" in broken English and makes a gesture as though he's shooting hoops. Quinn nods. We're in.
As we wind through the streets of Tul Karem, it's hard not to be hyper aware that we're seeing a part of the world few Westerners (or Israelis, for that matter) will ever see. Khadori College is just a 10-minute drive from the checkpoint. Quinn's students, a group of college physical education majors who want to learn how to coach basketball, are waiting outside, cheering. A friendly bunch, they always are eager to see someone brave enough to come from the outside.
Inside the college, there seems to be little to worry about. Though rundown, it looks a lot like most college campuses, with a couple of notable exceptions large portraits of Yasser Arafat on walls on the campus and the numerous photos of suicide bombers plastered about on the walls, doors and even the sidewalks. Suicide bombers in Palestine pose for one last photo before they go on jihad, and apparently the pictures are something of a collector's item here in Tul Karem.
Quinn takes the coaches through the training, and I spend an hour or so with Maha Jarrad, the dean of Khadori College, talking about her life in Tul Karem and how she hooked up with PFP.
Jarrad was one of the first people in Palestine to encourage Playing for Peace to work within the West Bank. Currently, PFP is laying the groundwork for a basketball league there. Most Palestinians do not play basketball; soccer is the sport of choice among young and old. There are few courts and even fewer organized leagues. Currently, PFP is training 10 coaches, all undergraduate students at the college. They, in turn, each have taken on a youth team in the area and, on Thursdays, PFP sponsors a game night on a dusty converted downtown soccer field.
The official stance of both the Fatah and Hamas governments in Palestine has been to discourage any cooperative activities with Israelis, making it difficult, though not impossible, to pair Palestinian and Israeli kids. PFP has to coordinate with the Israeli army just to get Palestinian kids into Israel, and the truth is that many Palestinians don't feel comfortable letting their children travel into Israel. At PFP's first overnight camp in August 2005, no Palestinian children were present, just Arab Israelis.
If PFP is going to succeed in helping the peace process in Israel, it has to do well in places like this.
What is Jarrad's secret? Like just about everything in Tul Karem, she doesn't conform to easy stereotypes. The Muslim women the West see portrayed on TV are shrouded, literally, in mystery. Their veiled faces and flowing black robes mask their identity in the West. Jarrad's a young, energetic, powerful woman who dresses in modern workout clothes and teaches physical education. She earned a bachelor's degree in physical education in Norway and a master's in international education in Jordan and wants to pursue a Ph.D. in physical education in the United States. She is very interested to know what a visitor from America would think about Tul Karem. She's also eager to dissolve the many stereotypes she knows exist about the place.
"[People] are so scared to come here," she says. "They hear we are a conservative people, that we are suicide bombers. I keep telling them, no, we are nice people. We care for our visitors. You must come and see."
Persuading people to come and see for themselves is the problem for all Palestinians, she says. They've earned such a bad rap in the media that few are willing to make the journey. She first hatched the idea when she signed up for a free coaches' workshop PFP was offering shortly after it began operating in Israel. She felt as though her city, her college, was the perfect place for PFP to begin. She worked numerous hours persuading the Ministry of Education to give her permission.
At first, Quinn said, he was "scared to death" to run basketball camps in the West Bank: "I was like, 'Is this really worth it?' My parents were freaking out. My heart was beating a 100 miles an hour at the checkpoint. I got comfortable over time. I even spent the night there a few weeks ago with the guys."
Jarrad also went out of her way to recruit the "right" people to become involved. Brahim is a perfect example. A college student by day, he's a Palestinian police officer by night. He wants to be a P.E. coach in a high school, someday. Right now, there are no jobs. Even his police job hasn't provided a paycheck lately, since the West stopped sending almost all foreign aid to Palestine.
"I wanted to learn the game more because I want to coach someday," Brahim says through a translator. "But I also want our Palestinian children to learn moral thoughts. It is dangerous here. They stay late on the streets and get in trouble. I want them to move their aggression to the court, learn how to be a good teammate, maybe someday even cross the border and play with someone else. We need this."
Brahim fidgets as we speak. He has been looking over his shoulder all day. People like Brahim take huge risks when they start collaborating with American peacemakers. He intervenes numerous times during the day, telling us whom we can talk to and where we can aim the camera. When asked to talk about what he does for the police, he refuses to discuss it, quickly concluding the interview.
Jarrad gives him reassuring looks throughout the day and pulls me aside after the interview to assure me that Brahim is just trying to make sure that no harm comes to his family or the kids involved.
The kids are inquisitive. Who are you? Why are there cameras? They run drills with great energy. "Defense!" they shout in English, as they slap their hands on the gravelly court. Still, it's clear PFP has its work cut out. The kids are adept on the soccer field but are still learning this new game. During a break in the games, a young boy makes a basket by kicking a soccer ball into the hoop. Shooting it? That's another story. They lay enough bricks off the backboard to help Israel build its 25-foot tall concrete wall that will snake across the Palestinian-Israel border (twice as high as and four times longer than the Berlin Wall, which stretched 96 miles).
The games begin and, though only PFP participants and a small smattering of parents are in the stands, the crowds are loud. Local residents peer through gates or stand atop adjacent buildings to watch the action. It's DJ day at the game. A woman, dressed in traditional Muslim tunic with a hijab wrapped around her head, blasts Usher's "Yeah!" from the loudspeakers. The kids in the stands start dancing the Cabbage Patch. As Usher yells "Yeah!" for the last time, the song effortlessly blends into a traditional Arabic pop song. The rest of the day's soundtrack is a mixture of American hip-hop and traditional Arabic music. It's one hell of a mix tape.
After the game, the children grab Matt and Brahim and form a big circle, joining hands to begin a traditional Tul Karem dance. This goes on for the next 15 minutes. Afterward, Jarrad is candid about PFP's chances of helping to bring peace to the region. "I hope so," she says. "I hope so. I hope so. This is a hard question. A good one, but a hard one. The kids are doing something. They are learning not only basketball but morality or, how do you say, team? They have nothing to do here. They are on the street. Sometimes, bad things happen. Bad people say things to them. Now, I worry less. They are here. They are learning. They know someone cares."
Still, Jarrad doesn't feel they're ready to be integrated with Israeli kids on the basketball floor. "Maybe someday," she says. "We cannot do what we want or go where we want. With the checkpoints and walls, we have no freedom. I think we must first learn this ourselves, then others."
At the checkpoint, we are delayed nearly an hour by Israeli soldiers nervous about the footage we filmed.
There are a lot of justifications for the checkpoints. Safety is paramount. Attacks from Tul Karem and other places in the West Bank have occurred. Building a barrier will help prevent those attacks in the future. But the wall also allows the Israelis to control the popular discourse about the struggle and the region. Normally, reporters going into the West Bank are there to film terror rallies or bombings.
The stuff we filmed today is footage that rarely gets filmed, let alone aired.
Most of the people in Tul Karem, as in almost every troubled community in the world, are good people in awful circumstances trying to make the best of life. PFP is not naive, however. The organizers know the people of Tul Karem tried to put their best foot forward today. We didn't see the more dangerous elements that live here. But it's the best foot that PFP is interested in. This is the foot we rarely see in the West and gives people like Matt Quinn hope that it exists.
"If I can overcome the fear and stigmas I had coming here," Quinn says, "I think others can, too. That's what we're about. Breaking down walls. It's a powerful experience to get past those barriers and meet the other side. So much of the negative disappears. And so much of the hope you have for humanity becomes strengthened."
Jerusalem, a holy city, is the most contested piece of real estate in the world. Jews and Muslims have struggled over the land for thousands of years. They're still fighting today. Diplomacy and mediation have failed to bring calm to the region. Hatred and fear have led to segregation and damaging stereotypes.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians and Jews have been living together, in close quarters, for more than a thousand years. Since 1967, when Israeli forces took the old city during the Six-Day War, many Palestinians and Israelis remain wary neighbors. But they are still neighbors. In the city founded by King David on a mountain many believe was the creation point of the world, there's no convenient place to build a wall.
Jerusalem has changed hands hundreds of times in the past 3,000 years. No one really has figured out how to hold it exclusively. The city is in a key position politically and spiritually, and conquerors over the years have used both as excuses to occupy it.
Jerusalem is perhaps the only city in the world with the unique ability to divide and unite simultaneously. Walking through the Jaffa Gate near the Western Wall, Christians head north, down a narrow pathway filled with merchants pawning Jesus trinkets, in search of the Holy Sepulcher, which Catholics believe was the site of Christ's death and resurrection.
Muslims head north, toward the Dome of the Rock, the most sacred Islamic spot in Jerusalem. Under the dome sits the stone from which Mohammed, their founding prophet, is said to have ascended into heaven. It is widely considered the third holiest site in Islam, after the Kaaba in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.
Jews head south, toward the Wailing Wall, to offer their daily prayers to God. Before we can get to the wall, we must negotiate our way through a maze of security barricades and metal detectors. The plaza near the wall always has been a prime target for would-be suicide bombers, and this area like other holy shrines is heavily guarded.
Despite the segregated nature of the city, members of each of the three groups can't help but bump into one another. One of the most sacred sites for Christians, the room where Jesus ate the Last Supper with his apostles, sits two floors above one of Judaism's most sacred sites the tomb where King David is buried. The main exit to the Wailing Wall, where many Jews come for daily prayers, leads directly into a Muslim bazaar filled with the smells of fresh falafel, kebob and sweet bread from merchants crammed into ancient nooks alongside the narrow alleyways. Follow the path farther and you will pass through the ancient gates into a bustling Muslim neighborhood and market. Here Arab-Israeli taxi drivers, panhandlers and merchants sell everything from olivewood crosses to cheap plastic menorahs. Turn right, and the hustle and bustle dissolves into a serene garden, the place many Protestants believe Christ was buried and resurrected.
The same interlocking reality exists outside the walls of old Jerusalem. There are no checkpoints, warnings or military escorts as you leave Israeli West Jerusalem and head to Palestinian East Jerusalem. Nothing brings their interconnectedness home quite like the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Safafa. The ancient Jerusalem stone town has been Palestinian for centuries but is surrounded on all sides by Israeli suburbs.
One of PFP's head coaches, "Ahmed" (his name has been changed to protect the safety of his family) has lived here his entire life. For years, he worked for the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He has traveled extensively throughout the world with Yasser Arafat and has documented many of the horrors suffered by his people.
For the first few days he says little, but one night, as the topic of discussion moves to Middle Eastern food, he opens up. Food seems to be a great conversational icebreaker, and Ahmed is anxious to talk about Palestinian cuisine. What's interesting is the nationalistic identity he ascribes to it.
Ahmed says Israelis have stolen most of Palestine's food and labeled it Israeli food. Hummus and falafel, to name just two delicacies, were developed by Arabs but co-opted by Israelis. "If you go into an Israeli restaurant and taste good hummus, go back and check in the kitchen," he says with a smile. "I promise you you'll find a Palestinian in the back."
As we drive through the streets of Jerusalem, Ahmed starts pointing out buildings with Arabic script from the Koran chiseled into doors. Muslims, Ahmed explains, built them all. This area of West Jerusalem, he asserts, all used to be Palestinian.
His family and friends all lived here until 1967. During the war, many Palestinians were dislocated. Israelis moved into their homes, claiming the spoils of war. Many other Palestinians fled to refugee camps. Almost 40 years later, many of them are still living there. Ahmed's family was lucky. They live in the one Arab enclave in this part of town, Beit Safafa.
Ahmed tries not to be bitter, but his anger seeps through when he talks. Now Beit Safafa is surrounded on every side by Israeli towns. As the Israeli government attempts to build a wall separating Palestine and Israel, he's stuck in the middle. Israelis are pushing for the Palestinians of Beit Safafa to move somewhere else. He doesn't want to move. No one does. But he also thinks it's inevitable.
"What Israel wants, it takes," he says grimly.
Israelis might be turned off by Ahmed's bluntness, but he's one Palestinian they should get to know. Ahmed is one of several Palestinians working for PFP who are defying the Palestinian government to help with the program, though his motives are not entirely altruistic. "When I was a child," Ahmed says, "I loved basketball but didn't have anyone to teach me or a place to play. I finally learned when I was 16. When I was 17, I played my first game against Israelis. It was a massacre."
The Israelis have an amazing basketball infrastructure with hundreds of club teams throughout the country. Ahmed's team, he said, was destroyed by 40 points: "I was humiliated and said I'd find a way to give Palestinian kids a chance to develop the same way Israeli kids did."
When PFP came looking for coaches, Ahmed was ready. He saw a program that could give his team coaching, shoes and a place to play. He volunteered despite the potential conflicts presented by the larger goals of the organization.
On the court, his passion and dedication are evident. His "two-hour practices" often stretch to three and sometimes four hours, until the sun goes down. His players huddle around him like chicks around a mother hen. Every word he speaks is met with rapt attention no small accomplishment when you are dealing with a group of 11- and 12-year-olds.
Although his dedication to basketball is unwavering, Ahmed is less enthusiastic about the other goals of Playing for Peace. "I don't know if I believe in peace," he says. "I appreciate what they are trying to do, but I don't know. There is too much suffering. Too much hate. How can we love a people who are trying to destroy us? Everything here is a reminder of what we had and what was taken from us. I just want my kids to become good players. I know we have to live with them and maybe this is the first step. But peace I don't know."
Khaled lives in a simple brick home on the hillside facing the Mount of Olives. More than a dozen children are running in the street with green-and-blue popsicles in the shape of cell phones dripping down their hands. The sun reflects off the white Jerusalem stone; a translucent glow suffuses the entire village. Inside, Khaled's home is decorated with rich velvety purple couches covered with gold embroidery. The walls are adorned with calligraphy from the Koran. He serves us fruit juice and Arabic coffee. His mother is draped in a long black dress with a thick scarf covering most of her head. His brothers and sisters giggle at all the attention.
Khaled doesn't understand all the scrutiny he's getting today. "I'm not sure I know what the big deal is," he says through an interpreter. "I'm not that good of a basketball player yet."
His sister Fatmah smiles at him and says he's a good kid. Never gets in trouble. Excellent student. This isn't how it's supposed to be sitting in the middle of a "dangerous" town like Issawiya talking to a kid who sounds a lot like the spelling bee champion of a little town in Kansas.
Khaled nervously twirls a basketball between his hands. He looks up, then away. "Why are you here?" he asks.
When asked about his relationship with Pini, he shrugs his shoulders and says, "He's a good guy. I like him. He works very well with me on the court. I like his game."
What about the fact that he's Jewish?
"I think they are OK," he says with a smile. "They are regular people. There's nothing strange about them. They are like us." He and Pini don't talk politics, Khaled says, they just talk about life, cell phones, music and movies.
Can Playing for Peace help bring peace?
"It might happen," he says, "if we ever sit down and talk about it."
Khaled is quick to move past talk of fighting and conflict. He wants to discuss "two-steps" (layups) and defense. He says he wants to coach a PFP team someday, maybe make it to the NBA. He wants to be a better player.
He talks warmly about the Jewish friends he has made, and says he harbored no hard feelings before he came to the program. They are his neighbors, Khaled says, and he wants to get to know them better. He's such a good person that the negative stereotypes are hardly believable.
What message would he like to send to Americans?
"We are regular people," he says earnestly. "We like things like everyone else. We just want to live in peace."
Just minutes after one leaves Jerusalem, the climate changes from arid to desert. Bedouin shepherds roam on the outlying rocky hills, riding camel caravans while their sheep graze on what little vegetation remains. The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world, 1,374 feet below sea level. At one point in history, the Jordan River flowed into the sea. That ended thousands of years ago. Over time, salt and brine built up in the water. Now, when you swim, you float. It is so buoyant it is almost impossible to dive under water.
Tomer is an Israeli settler who, along with 23 other families, set up a settlement near the shores of the Dead Sea in the heart of Palestinian territory. He, too, is a PFP coach working with Israelis in Bet Shemesh. Israeli settlers are notorious in Israel for being the most militant Jews in the country. They've been tagged with the term "settler" because they move with their families into Palestinian areas and set up camp. Many have religious or Zionist motivations. By occupying the land, they believe they're doing God's will or, at the very least, Israel's will by helping expand its borders.
Tomer's compound is surrounded by barbed wire and an electric fence, and is guarded by an Israeli soldier with an Uzi. In fact, every family in the compound is armed and participates in shooting practice once a week.
Tomer is big, a rotund 230-pounder with a close-cut beard. He is constantly apologizing about his excessive weight, which he attributes to a recent hip operation. He speaks seven languages and has a natural curiosity. We spend a long time talking about my home in Hawaii, a place he has always dreamed of visiting. "Is it true that the native women greet you with flowers?" Tomer says. "I will live my whole life to experience this. I think this is the correct greeting for a visitor to any new land."
Tomer is hoping the PFP experience will teach his people how to live together with Palestinians. He acknowledges that many in the compound believe they are the only group that belongs there, but Tomer purposely has put himself in the mix to try to change hearts. Like Matt Minoff, he's not your typical peacemaker. He has served for years in the Israeli army, carries an M-16 just like everyone else and says he'll use it if he needs to defend his people. "My people were led like lambs to the slaughter during the Holocaust," he says sternly. "I will never let that happen again. I'll die defending my family and my country before letting anyone do what the Germans did."
But he is inclined to think or, at least, hope that hoops, not guns, are a better way to peace. "I don't have the same perspective as many," Tomer says. "I have good relations with the Palestinians. I buy vegetables from them. I talk to them in the city. Arabs and Jews have to introduce themselves to each other to achieve peace. I'm trying this with my own family.
"I teach my kids not to judge people because of what god they pray to," he says. "I want to know how they live. We are seeing that there are many good people here."
Tomer started with Playing for Peace because he saw a similar opportunity to introduce basketball-crazy Israeli kids to Arabs. "Everything starts with a thought," he said. "Many things happen because of one man. Hundreds of people's lives can be changed. I believe this program can make a difference. I would do anything for it."
Pini's home is a plain concrete structure with no lawn. He lives in the home's safe room. Every home in Israel is required to have one. He dresses like an American teenager designer blue jeans, a red Jaguar T-shirt and a plain blue baseball cap. He has a computer in his room on which he plays video games and downloads trance music off the Internet. On his walls hang a switchblade and a pair of brass knuckles.
A basketball rim is tied to the upper level of the house. Pini has been rummaging through junkyards and found a pole for what he hopes will be a real basketball goal, once he can afford a backboard. Candidly, Pini admits that he too joined the program because he'd get to learn basketball. The idea of playing with Palestinians was a necessary evil. "I hadn't considered it," he says through a translator. "I couldn't see myself playing with them. I thought that all Arabs were the enemies."
Six months since he joined the program, Pini says his point of view has changed dramatically: "I even like them. I saw that they are not too different from me. There are differences, yes, but we both like music, basketball and computers. Of course I don't hate them now. It's fun to meet them and share their food some of them are good people."
The mood changes dramatically as Pini's father, Tzion, enters. He agrees to be interviewed; Pini looks nervous. Tzion speaks very little English, so the soundman and producer agree to translate.
He says that Pini is a polite boy who is slow in school. Pini recently had to be pulled out of his class and now has a full-time tutor provided by the school to help bring up his grades.
Tzion is surprised a camera crew has come all the way from the United States to interview his son. He says he has never seen his son play basketball, but now that he sees us here, he knows Pini must be special, so he's planning to come to the game tonight.
The next question rocks Tzion: "What was your reaction when you found out that Pini would be playing basketball with Palestinians?"
Tzion looks confused; he begins speaking rapidly in Hebrew. Members of the camera crew begin responding in Hebrew, but have no time to offer an English translation. Tzion's face grows redder. He looks at me with steely eyes and says something as he gestures to the crew to translate. "He says that he didn't know that his son was playing with Palestinians," the producer, Bruno, tells me. "He's upset. He thinks this is a bad idea. Palestinians are bad people. His son shouldn't be around them."
The room suddenly seems hot, too small.
We backtrack, talk about the history of the conflict through Tzion's eyes. Years of serving in the military, in wars with the Palestinians, have hardened his heart. The rape and strangulation of an 8-year-old girl in Bet Shemesh by a Palestinian illegal worker a few weeks earlier has convinced him that Palestinians haven't changed.
Between responses, Tzion pauses a long time. He says he has to think more.
I spend some time carefully explaining the program to him through the translators. At points, the camera crew and a producer from ABC chime in, as well. Tzion has seen a lot of things that aren't good about Palestinians. He doesn't know whether he can change.
But, he finally decides, maybe Pini can be different. "I give my blessing," he says. "If Pini wants to play, it's fine by me. It's his decision. If it works, let it be."
We drive to a café to get something to eat. Minoff, Matt Quinn and I are eating at a table. Sitting next to us are Dudu and Shimshon, our Israeli camera crew. They are speaking intensely in Hebrew. Dudu leans over to the two Matts and says, "We've been thinking a lot about what you're doing." He tells us that he's been covering wars for 40 years. He cut his teeth as a war correspondent in Vietnam and has spent the past 25 years in the Middle East. He has seen it all and captured most of it through his sound-recording equipment.
"We want you to know that we think what you're doing might save Pini," Dudu says. "I don't see any other way. He's poor. His father is intolerant. He doesn't have any reason to have hope. Your group is giving it to him. Our children can bring us the peace we have longed for. We spend our lives talking about the human potential to destroy. This week, I'm reminded that the potential to create is even more powerful."
Later, we head to the Bet Shemesh gym to watch two Israeli teams and two Palestinian teams merge into one. It's 6:30 p.m. The game is about to start. Tzion is not here.
Pini greets Khaled as he walks through the door. They warm up together, then shake hands with the other team before the game. Finally, the game begins. Khaled grabs a rebound and streaks up the floor. He makes a perfect pass to Pini for a layup. They high-five as they trot back down the floor.
Later in the game, Pini drives to the basket. As a couple of defenders collapse on him, he makes a perfect dish to Khaled for a layup. They run back downcourt and do a chest bump. Their smiles are contagious. The crowd is loud, standing and cheering.
Jews and Muslims playing together for peace.
After the game, Pini and Khaled, their arms around each other, head to the treat vendor for hot dogs and soda.
As I leave for my flight home, Ahmed is standing in the shadows. We say goodbye, and he makes one final request. "Do me a favor," he says. "Don't write what I told you. I said I don't believe in peace. Maybe I do now. I see this tonight.
"Maybe it is not too late for us."
With violence escalating between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, can Playing for Peace continue to make a difference in the Middle East?
This week, Matt Minoff, managing director of PFP-Middle East, says the current conflict, which started after this story was reported, hasn't had a major impact on his program. The two fronts in northern Israel and near the Gaza strip aren't close to any of the cities where PFP operates. For most Israelis and Palestinians, conflict is part of their everyday lives.
Playing for Peace takes the summer off to correspond with summer vacation for Palestinian and Israeli children. But everything is scheduled to begin running again in mid-August.
"We even have plans to expand our current operations by adding new communities, as well as forming girls' teams," Minoff said.
Chad Ford covers the NBA draft for ESPN.com and is an assistant professor of conflict resolution at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.