JOHANNESBURG // Deep in Alexandra Township, amid the dust and dirt that swirls around the ramshackle shanty homes, where shaven-headed children kick stones in the street, lies a makeshift stadium that Fifa built to promote social development and bring an end to discrimination. World football chiefs could not have expected that it would be the scene of a romance between a Palestinian boy and an Israeli girl, with echoes of Romeo and Juliet.
The Football for Hope Festival ended yesterday after six days of competition in South Africa between 32 teams of underprivileged young people from the world's conflict zones, from Colombia to Cambodia, organised to coincide with the World Cup. The Peace Team, eight young Palestinians and Israelis, between them speak Hebrew, Arabic and a little English. Their common language, however, is football.
Through it, they hope to promote a better understanding between their homelands, improve dialogue and accelerate the Middle East peace process. Sulaiman Khatib, a Palestinian from Ramallah, and Tami Hay-Sagiv, from the Israeli capital Tel Aviv, together work as delegation leaders for the team, which is made up of four players from either side of the West Bank wall, aged between 15 and 18. Both coaches are vocal when it comes to describing the positive relationship among the team's different religions and nationalities. But their players' body language tells the story better.
Abd al Rahman Badreen, the Peace Team's 15-year-old Palestinian goalkeeper, cuddles Liron Madar, his teammate from southern Israel, as they sit on the sidelines between games. They met through the Twinned Peace Football Schools, jointly run by Khatib and Hay-Sagiv. "We have a very good relationship," says Liron in Hebrew, smiling at Abd. She says: "I have a much better relationship with the Palestinian boys than the Israeli boys. I'd prefer to stay here with them."
It is little wonder. When they return home, contact will be limited and they will need travel permits to cross borders. But both teenagers refuse to let such barriers hinder their blossoming friendship: Liron is already planning to organise a barbecue at her home in Kiryat Gat and will ask the Peres Center for Peace, the organisation of which Hay-Sagiv is director, to help with the paperwork to allow Abd to attend.
While both Khatib and Hay-Sagiv admit that to witness such a relationship grow is "amazing", the latter is keen to add that the pair's friendship proves that projects such as Football for Hope are effective. "The people in my region view the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians with sarcasm in a cynical way, but there are normal Israelis and normal Palestinians who want to play football together and eat together," says Hay-Sagiv. "When they come together, as they have these past few days, they can see that they have many more similarities than they do differences."
The eight members of the Peace Team have spent the past few nights having fun in a safe environment and learning about each others' culture. They may live less than an hour from each other, but they have little idea of life on the other side of the wall. "We have the opportunity to get to know each other better," says Eden Assouline, a 16-year-old Israeli. "We stay in the same room, we enjoy the same jokes. They teach us songs in Arabic and we teach them songs in Hebrew, and at night we do lots of funny things and learn the language of each other. It's fantastic."
Khatib, dressed in the Peace Team's red, black and white tracksuit, is the general director of Al Quds for Democracy and Dialogue, a Palestinian-based organisation dedicated to improving mutual understanding and promoting peace with the Israelis. Having been sentenced to 10 years in prison as a teenager, he understands the significance of preaching peace to the region's youth. "When I was 12, I was fighting the Israelis and I tried to kill two Israeli soldiers. I stabbed them and was throwing Molotov cocktails and stones, and starting different militia groups. When I was 14, I was sent to an Israeli prison where I was held for a decade. This programme alone will not change anything, of course, but alongside other programmes in the grassroots levels, we could really change the whole relationship between us and the Israelis.
"Normally, these kids would never meet. This is exceptional, but through these kind of meetings they make friends, learn each other's language and keep in touch through e-mail. "They really care about each other and it is amazing to see. I know some people will not like that in the Arab world, but what will we do otherwise? This is the only way, there is no military solution." On Friday, as the team prepared for their final match in front of a packed crowd of vuvuzela-tooting township children, Kamal Althom, the team's young Palestinian leader, rallied his troops. As each player walked past, Kamal embraced them, wishing them the best and telling them to enjoy the experience.
"We live in such a small area and we are using football to bring the two together," says Hay-Sagiv. "Our region has all these psychological and physical barriers in place, but through initiatives like this we are breaking them down." There are few places more appropriate for Israelis and Palestinians to show the world that the two can coexist peacefully than in South Africa, adds Khatib, who took his team to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg this week.
"It was very important for us to come to this event and this country, and bring the Palestinian and Israeli flags with us to share the problems and information with people outside the region," he says. "As we can see here with the apartheid system, one day it needs to stop. But we need time and support from the rest of the world, like South Africa had. "The world boycotted the South African regime and that's how it ended. We require the same international exposure and backing to succeed in our quest."