Growing up in the west, you’re told that sport and politics simply don’t mix. But in the Middle-East they are interchangable and while some brave souls try to use mere games to help children rise above the Israel-Palestine conflict, for many it’s just another extension of a hatred with no solution. Ewan MacKenna reports from a place where playing fields and killing fields can be exactly the same place.
It’s a last supper of sorts. And by any measure, it’s a good one.
You’re sitting in a restaurant in east Jerusalem and at times like these, it’s easy to forget the reality of this place. The tables are decked out in white and red chequered cloths; the late evening sun squirms through a natural roof of vines; not so far away and under the Jaffa Gate is the pristine Old City with its polished marble footpaths; and across from you is a stack of garlic chicken and an Irish human rights lawyer who asks not to be named as his job here is hard enough as it is. You’re meeting because tomorrow you head into the relative unknown, out through the Israeli checkpoints and on to Ramallah, capital of the West Bank. But for now, the lawyer reminds you even amidst such mind-emptying tranquillity, this is a place where beauty is only ever surface deep.
“It’s amazing to think the Teddy Stadium is only a few miles away,” he says, referring to the home of Beitar Jerusalem, six times winners of the national league. He’s right because, as the Palestinian waiters come and go in a part of the controversial and some say illegal capital of Israel they call both home and homeland, you remember the football club is famous for its ties to the far right, its biley nationalism and it’s hatred towards those they share a city with. “There are heaps of stories of how after games their fans go into shopping malls and beat up Arab-Israeli workers,” the lawyer adds. “You see it if you are here long enough, they are complete head-cases and very dangerous.”
You’ve heard as much, as even their attitude and actions have seeped beyond the lack of interest in a mediocre league, into the wider media and out across the continent. They chant slogans like ‘Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. War! War! War!’. In 2005, Nigerian defender Ibrahim Nadalla left because of abuse from his own supporters based around his religion. The side’s former coach Eli Cohen has said, “There’s a difference between a Muslim from Europe and a Muslim from Israel.” And when the club broke their age-old policy of not signing Arab-Muslims two years ago, fans attacked Beitar’s administrative offices with fire, four were arrested, some walked out of games while others hung banners that read “Beitar will always remain pure”.
Indeed the Independent newspaper in London ran an article about just that, with one fan quoted in its pages as saying, “It’s just a matter of being Arab. It’s not racism, they just shouldn’t be here. Beitar Jerusalem has always been a clean club, but now it’s being destroyed. Many of the other players are thinking of leaving because of the Muslim players being here”. Officialdom spoke out, from the club hierarchy all the way up to the nation’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a supporter of the side. But words are cheap, actions can be extremely expensive, and it was a peek into the reality behind this false allure you are now sitting in.
“It’s not easy for Palestinians here, but they are the lucky ones,” your dining companion continues. “Those in the West Bank, if they don’t have a pass they won’t get in here. You can apply for a permit, some can get 12-hour permits, some can get day permits, but you’ve to be back out by seven o’clock for example. For Palestinians living in Jerusalem, separated like that, think about family reunification. They can’t develop families outside of that small proportion of their people with a Jerusalem ID either. It’s a nightmare life for them but nobody seems to care a whole lot.”
It’s the summer of 2013 as you sit, eat and consider all that and reflect on how you’ve come here to see this conflict through the eyes of sport and to see whether it’s a language that can come between Hebrew and Arabic or if it’s just another vehicle to further enlarge a chasm as deep as it is wide. Amidst the gentle waft of sulphur, exactly 12 months before the most recent, chilling eruption of violence and hatred, you consider too how you’ve crucially travelled with an open mind and how one of the first people you came across was like a candle in a place that can seem destined to remain dark, because most of humanity’s ills have somehow come together in one small, acidic strip of land.
Back in Tel Aviv-Jaffa where the sand glows, the sea is warm and the beer is icy, you spoke with Tami Hay who works for the Peres Centre for Peace. Founded by former president of Israel Shimon in 1996, the idea was to increase positive relations between Israel and Palestine, Arab and Jew, through numerous initiatives. Sport became one of those in 2002 and Hay became involved in that area 2007. “It touches the lives of about 1,500 kids from Israel and Palestine, boys and girls, from six to 18,” she explained of twinning projects. These see coaches trained and children taught tolerance through sport in their community, before coming together with the opposite side five times a year.
“When that happens, it’s always mixed teams and we can only get them to meet on the Israeli side because of Israeli law. But they are going through different workshop activities together and using sport to break down barriers they carry within themselves – psychological barriers, and also physical because they don’t really have access to the other side ever. It cannot be a one-time event though because this won’t be helpful. We also do youth leadership programmes, showing they can create change in their communities using sport. And everything we do, we do with a Palestinian partner.”
Hay admits the reaction of children being placed side-by-side at the start is always the same. They want to fight in a show of strength because of the hatred they are soaked in at home. But that’s not the only fight as she recalls, as one example, an Israeli father being reluctant to let his son engage and only after some convincing did he relent. “It’s not easy for Palestinians to send their kids across a checkpoint to the enemy either,” she sighs. Yet if the beginning is often negative, the end isn’t always positive, and funding and politics cutting certain twining efforts short is tough to take.
“But kids who have been doing it for say seven years, you can see they’re more tolerant. We’ve kids who went to the Israeli military service and they said they were scared they’d be in a situation where they’d have to hit or shoot at Palestinians and didn’t know how that would feel because they now know some. They were thinking and that’s new. Most of them also communicate after the programme on Facebook and they keep on coming back which is a good sign. And what I saw several times, once Palestinian kids came to the play sports, and saw the Israelis treat them nicely, they said they never thought it could like that. This generation of Palestinians, all they know of us is soldier and settler which is sad for them and an indictment of us. It’s all a process, but a process for me too.
“My background isn’t exactly left wing,” she continues. “I was really scared of Arabs, taught to hate them. I was a child in Tel Aviv in the 1990s and there were several suicide bombings so I had my reasons to be scared but without confronting or understanding it. When I’d a chance to join here, it was my way of dealing with my fears, of changing my mindset and looking at the conflict at an eye-to-eye level. I needed to see the other side, see there are real people there. Now I want to give kids the chance to see the situation in an objective way and let them make up their own minds as well.”
You ask the lawyer of this positive side of Israel and, like Hay, he agrees there are voices for peace, it’s just that they have been drowned out by the vitriol. “But how can Palestinians be expected to be peaceful?” he stresses. “Not even talking Gaza and what happens there but Israel has huge control of the West Bank. They are the occupier. Area A is under full civil and military control of the Palestinian Authority, but then you’ve Area B which is under civil control of the PA and military control of Israel, and Area C which is full Israeli control. Area C is 62 per cent of the West Bank. The arable land and the land with the resources is Area C. If you speak to diplomats, NGOs, neutral journalists, anyone off the record, they’ll admit that in any final solution, the Jordan Valley which is a large proportion of Area C will remain in Israeli hands.
“What is likely in the end is that there will be these city states under some kind of nominal control of the PA. You’ll see, you drive around the West Bank and on the vast majority of hilltops are settlements or outposts and they tend to be the aggressors in any trouble and not just by being there. There was one case as an example, a taxi with a Palestinian family in it, it stopped at lights and a settler came along and threw a Molotov cocktail in. A couple of kids suffered severe burns. This hatred isn’t unusual nor are these sorts of actions. Yes, there are extremists on both sides, go to Gaza and you’ll get it with Hamas. The difference is Israeli extremists are fully supported by the state and by extension the international community. You don’t get that anywhere else.
“As well you get these youth settlers and they’ll often come down from their hills and set fire to a field or burn out cars, paint slogans on the wall, ‘Allah was a pig’, this kind of stuff. That’s a big problem and that’s exploded over the last four or five years, to a huge degree. They’ve tried to burn down mosques, vandalised houses, beaten people up. The regular thing is chopping down olive trees. They know there’ll be no consequences and every now and then Israel says this isn’t compatible with the principles and values of their state but they never do anything about it. From what you are looking at, it doesn’t distinguish between athletes and non-athletes. It’s life.”
He has a question for you too, and asks what you’ve seen so far on your journey. Everything, you admit of just a few short days. From the sublime of a trip north up the coast; to the bizarre of sitting on a bus with a bunch of female conscripts carrying weaponry as Status Quo’s ‘In the Army Now’ came on the radio; to the ridiculous as a Tel Aviv shopkeeper’s humour changed because of an honest answer when he asked what you were doing here; to the absurd as two Israelis on a walking tour of Nazareth shouted down the American-born guide because of her slight sympathy for the Arab population that happen to call it their home. “Yeah, I’ve seen everything,” you repeat.
“Almost everything,” he corrects you, and throws out a smile that hints at your journey into the West Bank the next day. Last supper over, and with more questions than you arrived with, you head back through the Jaffa Gate, across the polished marble footpaths of the Old City and return to your hotel in what seems a place of plenty and a land of luxury.
* * *
It’s 7am, and the baking sun rises over the dusty dirt of Ramallah. You’re standing in the city centre, wading through rubbish on the footpath, as chaos abounds on the congested, uneven roadways. Prayer songs bellow from small shops while bunting with the country’s colours obscures the jigsaw of hectic and high-rising apartments. You try to take in as much as possible in what’s a sensory overload before heading to the more quaint and comfortable surroundings of the Palestinian Olympic Committee. The contrast is just as Tami Hay had told you it would be. “The gap between us and them is massive, but also within the Palestinian community there’s huge inequality.”
The Olympic committee building rests in relatively leafy suburbs of the West Bank capital and there you are greeted firstly by the numerous portraits of Yasser Arafat adorning the walls, and then by Samia Elwazer, head of international relations, who calls for enough sweet tea to saturate this desert. She hasn’t been in the role long and admits to not having a huge knowledge of sport, but neither obstacle has stopped her from realising how important it is to this land of little. “We have to increase the role of sport and the impact of it on our people. Facilities are an issue though. There’s never enough money either. But the biggest issue is the Israelis.
“Here, look at this,” Elwazer continues as she reaches for a booklet on her desk called ‘Sport Under Siege’. It’s about the problems Israel causes to sport in Palestine and on page one outlines five broad issues. Number one is infrastructure and the banning of building and hindering of the construction of stadiums and other facilities, and sometimes the destruction of existing facilities. Number two is the restriction of movement of local or visiting players and official board members in and out of the Palestinian Territories. Number three is the halting of sports shipments, by employing complicated procedures that delay or prevent delivery of equipment sent by international federations. Number four is political interference in matches between Palestine and others. Number five is human rights violations against athletes, many of whom are arrested or even kidnapped without reason.
It’s a damning list but behind the words are faces, one of which is Dr Mazen Al Khatib, Secretary General of the Palestinian Olympic Committee. “Yes, Israel makes it very difficult for sport here,” he says in the matter-of-fact tone of a man so familiar with frustration and war that it’s become normal to him. “Look, we believe that in all the sporting federations here, we can show the goodness of Palestine. We want the world to see us through sporting eyes, not bombing and the many problems we face. We believe in peace and we believe sport will achieve this peace, even with Israel. First though, we need the infrastructure and there are problems between Zone A, B and C.
“Even in Zone A, which the Palestinian Authority has control of, there are Israeli settlements near the Al-Bireh International Stadium and they stopped us for more than three years in building this because maybe the fans will make noise and disturb the settlers. It’s not allowed for the Palestinians to build floodlights, because maybe the Israeli helicopters will come and it makes problems, even though this is a Fifa project. Can you imagine you are not allowed to build stadiums or infrastructure, not allowed to put floodlights? Is this peace? And this is A Zone, under our authority.
“The second problem, for many years, we are without any technical development because Israel doesn’t allow anyone in from outside. Even instructors from Fifa or the Asian Football Confederation, they refuse them permission. Teams are stopped too and these are facts. Mr [Michel] Platini, the Uefa president, has sent us containers of balls and t-shirts and cones for the children. The Israelis took these containers in the port and kept them for six months and then said we have to pay €75,000 to get them out. Mr Platini then gives the under-21 tournament [2013 European Championships at that level] to Israel. Can we achieve any progress under this situation?
“We have no qualified gymnasium in Palestine. For athletics we don’t have any track. In judo, the international federation gave us mats but the Israelis kept these for eight months in customs and then they charge us €20,000. We cannot afford this. We even had a letter from the international federation saying they were donated. Our president, he met the president of the Israeli Olympic Committee and Jacques Rogge [former International Olympic Committee president] and he was trying to separate sport from the political issues. But the Israelis said this is related to their security sector therefore it is acceptable. But we are not against Israelis, we are against the occupation. It’s not just physical and political, it’s an emotional occupation. Can you imagine living like that? But still I believe in peace through sport. I really do believe in that, even after everything.”
Al Khatib goes on to tell of more specific instances of Israeli interference. In the football qualifiers for the 2012 Games, the Palestine team were denied the chance to bring all their players and officials to matches against Thailand and Bahrain and were told the reason was security and that it couldn’t be elaborated on. He mentions World Cup qualifiers for the women’s team when two players were stopped at the last minute. He thinks back on the ex-national soccer coach, French-Algerian Moussa Bezaz, who had to take one-month visas and leave the country between reissues. “Do you think the coach of the Israeli team does that? How is this fair and how is this giving us our rights when there is a difference in treatment. How can you develop any sport?”
He recalls too the opening of a German-funded stadium in Area C and how it was attacked by Israeli soldiers during a game. “Why,” you ask? “Just to break up the day but there are many similar stories,” he replies. Elwazer throws in the much-publicised tale of the athletes not able to leave Gaza for the Bethlehem Marathon. “Even for disabled athletes, they don’t get a permit. What are they going to do?” She then shows photographs of children’s games being broken up by heavily-armed Israeli forces. “This picture, it’s from an under-14 match in east Jerusalem. All these soldiers came just for a game of football amongst kids. Imagine the effect it had on them.”
Signs of emotion hidden, both are clearly used to a political game they are never allowed to win. But it gets the better of others. Ghaida Jarrar, a former international volleyball player who is now head of the nation’s fencing federation, is talking about the struggle despite the success of the programme in its short 16-year history. “There is no equipment at all. We don’t have donations. We asked the International Fencing Federation, every three months I send them letters. They are written from the plan they have on their website, because they’ve assistance for poor countries, but they don’t respond. You feel helpless. No one cares for us and we can’t do anything. Why don’t they respond? I need €110,000 to buy equipment. Please, we need help,” she says.
You get the feeling there’s more to her eyes welling up than mere sport, but perhaps it’s just the tipping point. Others are the same. Hani Halabi, president of the judo federation, doesn’t resort to sorrow though, rather anger. You ask him about the triumphs of his sport amidst such adversity, given that judoka Maher Abu Remeleh carried the flag at the last Olympics and was the first ever Palestinian to properly qualify for a Games. “A special thing for us as Palestinians is to be in the stadium, seeing all the other countries and for our flag to be raised up as well. The British army was standing for us, that was important. It’s not only about competing, it’s about raising our flag up.”
But Halabi stops short of elaborating further on those Olympics and wants to tell you about those you never see or hear of instead. “I have some players, between 10 and 12, three kids. Their houses were demolished by the Israelis. After this, they didn’t come to the club to participate. I went to see them, to tell them not to give up but only one came back. He made the right choice, but I don’t blame the others for quitting. At any age, this creates so much anger; it can ruin even the things that keep your mind healthy. Their families as well, it destroyed them, people outside cannot imagine. Sport was there to save them. But with all this talk, you must realise we are a people of peace.
“However, even so, I still don’t see that Israeli flag because they don’t give us our rights. We still have more settlements; many of our athletes are still in prison. If they release them, if they stop building settlements, if they recognise us as the state of Palestine, then we would agree to compete. But at the Olympics, all countries were friendly in the village but I couldn’t meet Israelis. They kill my people and I can’t stop thinking what they did to those three kids who never came back to the club.”
“They tried to ruin adults too,” adds Wael Shabab, secretary general of the martial arts association. “This is Abdul Rahman Ayoub,” he says, pointing to the giant of a man beside him who doesn’t speak English but throws out a bucket of a hand as a gesture of friendship. Rahman is one of the better kung-fu fighters in the country right now but has been banned from leaving the West Bank for five years, again because of security reasons. Those assisting him and trying to save his sporting career have asked for this to be explained in greater detail but it’s claimed the Israeli authorities never do.
“He’s from the refugee camps and a lot of our sports people come from the tough refugee backgrounds many are forced into,” notes Samia Elwazer. “Actually, we put our attention on those people because they are the most frustrated. They want someone to advise them, to encourage them and show them a way out. They have nothing, and nothing to lose, so those people easily get in with drugs and some become spies for Israel because they need money. By sport you can change this, give ethics, so we concentrate on this a lot as day-to-day life in those places, it’s not a proper place to grow up. It’s so crowded, small and there’s no privacy in it.
“Maybe you can’t even imagine the problems faced in this environment or how exactly these people live. Maybe you need to see it to believe it?” she adds. But it’s a suggestion more so than a question.
* * *
Welcome to the Jalazone Refugee Camp. Just a 15-minute drive through the dead 46c heat, this is a different and startling world. It turns out Elwazer was correct – you do need to see it to believe it.
Established in 1949 for those fleeing the Israeli-Arab War, you get the feeling little has changed in that time but for its size, as these days about 15,000 people are crammed into the make-shift and ramshackle buildings. There’s no space for adults, never mind children and sport, and as you pass through what are more narrow gaps between crumbling houses than streets, something catches your eye. On many corners, kids play a game in groups of fours and fives that involves throwing ice cream sticks they’ve found off of a stained, cracked wall. This is often as good as it gets for them.
“Well there’s no room for anything else,” says Abdul Rahman Ayoub through a translator. “I’m happy though, I like it, but it’s not easy to live in a camp, it’s not really healthy, but it’s still home for me. I was raised here, grew up here. But knowing this place, I know how important sport is to it. It’s something to do so you don’t go mad. But in any club, even in the camp, you have to pay and most of the people here barely have a budget for food for themselves and their kids. They can’t afford sports clubs and if they don’t have sport, that means more problems. It means trouble with each other, and since you can’t live a proper life to begin with, no sport only makes that life worse.”
Rahman takes you on a tour and there’s one structure that holds pride of place: the local gym. In countries allowed to develop, it would be next up for a long overdue makeover but here it is the makeover. Opened in 1996, and financed by the PLO, “it’s to help give a service for the people in the area,” says it’s manager who sits with a cigarette butt loping from his mouth as he sits beside a crackling radio. “It’s now run by donations and our committee have many projects – infrastructure, lights on streets, we want to try and build a playground, and we want to build a secondary school because there is none. There aren’t many sports facilities but we have this club where they can play volleyball and practice karate. But also, we are trying to get some money together for a green area.”
There is one area with plenty of green not so far away Rahman informs you. He takes you to the top of the hill where the Israeli outpost used to be, towering over the camp both physically and mentally. And only a handful of kilometres away in the distance, you can see the Jewish community of Beit El, a village of 6,000 largely built on Palestinian private property and that is, under international law, illegal. “Given my situation, seeing that makes it worse for me,” says Rahman.
It’s obvious why and before you leave, you ask him about his own situation and what hope he has of ever getting out of the country to compete. “Every now and then, our nation’s president and the president of the Olympic committee are trying with the Israelis through the liaison office to see why I am forbidden to travel. Each time they say security reasons and that’s the end of it. We’ve urged them to talk with me but they won’t. So, each time I try to leave, I go to the checkpoint bridge and when I’m there, they just tell me I’m forbidden and I come back. But I always go that far.
“When I did get banned I was going to compete in Jordan and the rest of the team, they went. My family, they knew I was going to compete but then I don’t come back. When you are from here, your family knows why you don’t come home, it’s obvious but they can do nothing. It’s frustrating of course. One time they took me from the bridge and threw me in jail for one-and-a-half years. That was four years ago. They couldn’t find anything against me, but they still threw me there. Not knowing why you are there, or when you’ll get out, it drives you crazy. But you’ve no other choice and none of that makes me want to stop competing. I want to gain my human rights through sport.”
As for all athletes in the West Bank, it’s so much more than just a game. Likewise for those involved in sport and sports administration in the Gaza Strip and that’s one of the major problems in that the two halves of the one country aren’t allowed come together. As secretary general Dr Mazen Al Khatib explains, “Even the congress of the Olympic committee, the West Bank committee and the Gaza committee weren’t allowed a meeting in five years”. And given the recent war it’s still not clear who or what is left of the other half of their organisation. “Could this happen in any other place in the world?” he asks. “So imagine the movement of the players between the West Bank and Gaza. It’s part of our country but we don’t know it and we aren’t allowed to know it anymore.”
Few do know it such are the Israeli restrictions and current Israeli actions but one of those who has been inside the Hamas-ruled area is 35-year-old ex-Irish rugby international Trevor Hogan who gained access in 2013. It was a triumph for persistence as earlier attempts to enter with a flotilla containing aid for the stricken region saw the ship boarded in international waters. The Israeli navy used water cannons to take out electronics in the wheelhouse; commandos in balaclavas came on board with assault rifles, knives, hand-guns, Tasers and shotguns; windows were smashed; and eventually Hogan and others were carted off to jail for a week. All this and his purpose as a sports ambassador for a charity organisation was to deliver rugby kits donated by Leinster and Munster.
Before its own flair-up in trouble, Egypt seemed a more sensible route and despite the delays, he eventually fulfilled his mission. “The first thing I noticed, when we were crossing over the border from Raffa, was the amount of kids out playing sport,” he says today, looking back. “Just literally kicking and bouncing balls across a street or off walls. Volleyball seemed quite popular on the road in. So straight away it’s not what you were really expecting, which was devastation and bombed out buildings. There was plenty of that but this was what you were greeted with first – happy kids laughing and enjoying themselves playing games. The realisation that sport was a big part of life in Gaza grew from there. Imagine now after what happened over last summer.”
“But then it was just great to make contact with teams, to build a link. But it’s very hard for sport to thrive without that competition, never mind facilities. There’s one proper grass pitch in Gaza, so you are dealing with very basic stuff but they seem to manage in terms of playing on rough patches of ground. The Gaza football stadium, we went there and that had just been bombed and obviously it’s been completely destroyed now. When I was there, supposedly it had been targeted because it was a site for launching rockets – that was denied locally. And anyway, that wouldn’t have justified the devastation. Another problem is mechanical equipment. Basketball is another big sport and just to record scores, they’ve issues in terms of simple things like that and difficulty with gym facilities.
“Another gym was bombed because it was supposedly located next to another rocket site and that destroyed another club. We actually struggled to find one club that hadn’t been affected by Israeli military raids then and I’m sure you’ll find none now, not that sport is exactly important at the moment. But at the time when there wasn’t that level of conflict it was still a way of dehumanising people. Most clubhouse windows had been shattered by bombs, this sort of thing. And that’s unfortunate because there was over 40 per cent unemployment, an average age of 17 too, so sport is huge as there’s nothing else. But those in the West Bank, they have this nostalgic view of Gaza but don’t know it anymore. They talk about restaurants on a beach. There is a lovely beach; the problem is sewage goes into the sea as there are no proper sewage facilities. There’s no proper anything.”
They are details you didn’t mention to those back in the West Bank who have family they haven’t seen in many years in Gaza – 30 years in Elwazer’s case. After all, hope becomes hard currency when there’s little else. But you did share some of Hogan’s other recollections. There’s the day his group were brought to the Gaza Olympic Committee’s ceremony to announce its new chairman. So glad were they to see people help, he was put in the front row and asked to make a speech in English even though few in the room knew the language. There is the trip he’s helping put together for an under-16 soccer team called Al Helal to come to Ireland too, and the €20,000 he’s trying to fundraise for that 10-day stay which starts with a full day’s drive across the Sinai Desert just to make a brief escape from an open prison.
And there’s the day he finally handed a child a Leinster rugby jersey. “He tried it on, and of course it was far too big but it was just the idea that this happiness was there in kids that have so little hope, because they can’t really live or have a normal existence as we’d understand it. And just the idea that a simple jersey – and the idea that the outside world was able to briefly connect and show an interest and to share a love of sport – brought that much joy. I’ll always remember that although looking on at what’s been done since, that image makes it even harder to take. You never know if that kid is still about or if like many others he’s been blown to pieces to put it crudely.”
* * *
It touches everyone. Nobody escapes the hurt and the hate. Back in the summer of 2013 at the Olympic Committee building in Ramallah, you got talking to Ghayda’ Abu Zayyad who worked there – she now works for the football association – and she told you her brother was arrested the night before. At 19, he’d been throwing stones at Israeli armoured vehicles and it was deemed an attack that warranted a midnight intervention. The owner of the nearby bar may have insisted that you should always kiss the Israelis on the arm because you are never going to win so you might as well become well off at the very least. But after what she’s been through, Zayyad looks sickened by the notion.
She took out her phone and showed pictures she secretly took of the incident at the family apartment as they came for her brother. There were the line of army trucks parked up; the soldiers that broke in; the camera strapped to an Israeli’s helmet as her mother pleaded not to be pictured in her nightgown; the general fear and panic. “Pray for him,” she said as she recalled what happened her older brother when he was 18. Convicted of throwing stones years before, she told you he was held on terrorism charges, kept in isolation, electrocuted and tortured, and eventually emerged with lash marks and bruises across his back. There was no formal conviction ever.
Indeed over the following months, her youngest brother was held without charge and lost nine kilos. The family were denied the opportunity to see him, except for her mother who visited twice a month. All this was before any trial and according to the human rights lawyer is standard. Zayyad later emails: He also had problems with his bones. He couldn’t stand or walk as he was all the time tied to a very small chair. And 24-hours-a-day there was very cold air turned on. We have passed through the worst 45 days in our lives as he was in isolation all that time. But thank God, things are getting better as he’s been moved to Ofer prison near Ramallah.
The story reminds you of Tami Hay back in Tel Aviv-Jaffa because, despite her Peres Centre work now, she was once one of those soldiers. “During that time, you aren’t able to see them in a positive way because you are scared,” she tells you of being on the opposite side. “You are sure everyone is a potential terrorist, even if it’s a 10-year-old girl, and you can’t ask questions. So this sports work now is me finding myself, visiting communities in the West Bank that I was in before as a solider. Some of my friends are cynical because no one believes there can be change. But I’m bringing the stories back home, speaking with my right-wing grandmother, and sometimes, I can feel it, she is 88 and it influences her in the smallest way. That can only be good.”
Zayyad now finds the contrast strange, especially given Hay is still in the military reserve by choice, just as she finds the contrasts in her own situation strange. “Not so long ago, things were great. I was at the London Olympics and it was amazing. It was Ramadan and I was fasting but there was so much food in the village, I wanted to eat it all. They even had halal. It was particularly amazing because we were in touch with people from Gaza by email and then to finally get to meet them was so special, it meant so much. But to go from that to this, to my brother being arrested, to what’s happened in Gaza, to this world we’re forced to live in. Just to return to this reality…”
Clearly hurting from this mere existence shunted upon her, Zayyad brought you upstairs to meet Woroud Sawala for whom such barbed and flecking emotions are familiar. You might remember Sawala despite her coming last in her 800-metre heat in London, finishing a full 21 seconds behind the winner. What made her stand out was she took to the track in a hijab. “Wearing it was hard, but I got used to it,” she says to you. “So many athletes used to say things about me before a race, I could hear them. They were telling me I can’t go out with that, it wasn’t right. Some things were said that weren’t very nice. Others laughed at me for competing looking like that. But it never crossed my mind to not do it or to run without it. At the beginning these comments, they were frustrating me, putting me down and putting my people and my life and my choices down, but it just made me think how important this was and that I had to go for it and that I had to do what I believe in.”
Despite running a personal best in 2012, when she got back her father and others said they were disappointed. Like many looking at an Olympics though, they saw the destination, not the journey. The reality was that her time was the most remarkable of any because, from Nablus, a 90-minute drive north of Ramallah, this tiny slip of a woman made a trip that should have been impossible. Having taken up the sport because of slivers of potential in her teens, her training was far more difficult than any other Olympian. Not one other athlete went through what she had to.
“The roads I’d run, they were a little bit away from my village but after a while I had to stop because of the settlers. They have their animals and their dogs and they used them to frighten and intimidate me and all I wanted to do was get away. I’d love to be able to go wherever I want and train where I want, and have the freedom to do this, but that’s just not the way here. Whenever there are settlers in the street or in that area, we have to cancel the training because they are dangerous. Sometimes they used to throw rocks at me when I was training so we thought it was better to go back home.
“But you grow up with these problems. In Nablus, sometimes we had school competitions, so they’d throw tear gas and this means we can’t breathe, never mind run. It cancels everything. That was in 2005 and 2006 and 2007. They shouted things at me as well and still do. They raise their arms when they shout but of course I don’t understand what Israelis say. So everything here is difficult, as is sport, and that made London even more special. And all these things strengthened me too.”
Sawala has a meek voice that suits her stature but it’s all misleading. She’s clearly steel strong and says all the hurdles just made her jump ever higher. For instance at university, athletics competitions took place on local dirt tracks because, despite being the second most popular sport in the country after soccer, Palestine doesn’t have a running track. For years she ran in runners and was unaware of spikes. As she progressed, and after training trips abroad, her bags were searched by Israeli soldiers on each arrival home to slow her down and irritate her. Meanwhile during the previous escalation of violence in 2012, two friends she met in London who were also athletes were killed in Gaza.
“But I’m more determined to continue. For instance, the settlers, they don’t want prominent Palestinians. They try to keep you down. They hate people like me, but it doesn’t matter, I am glad to do my country proud. It’s why Olympic dreams aren’t always about winning. In London, I was crying from happiness. In the Olympic village, I loved it, just going around saying hello to people. You saw Israelis there yes, but we didn’t talk to them and they didn’t talk to us. That’s just the way it is. But I met Usain Bolt there. And I also met Bahaa al-Farra. He was our other qualified athlete there.
“He ran in the 400 metres. He is from Gaza and we only ever talked on the phone before. One day he was calling on his way home from training and there were bombs going off and I could hear. I used to call back several times to make sure he was okay and I could hear the explosions in the background. I was worried and he was trying to calm me down, and he’d tell me ‘It’s okay, it’s okay. It happens all the time’. I heard his sister crying one day. It’s very difficult, it’s a war.”
You ask about her life after London and she says in university she’s trying to develop a hijab that is more aerodynamic and allows the head to breathe while running. And all the while she’s helping her mother clean houses around her local area in order to earn some meagre pocket money she hopes gets her as far as Rio de Janeiro come 2016. You tell her you can’t imagine too many other Olympians that are in such a situation. “Being known, it counts for nothing here,” she laughs. “But I am still one of the lucky ones. Really, believe me. I’m one of the very lucky Palestinians.”
* * *
There’s a saying in these parts that translates roughly as reburying the corpse. It’s what the locals talk about when prisoners are supposed to be set free. “The day of release will come, the guards tell the prisoner he can go, bring him to a bus outside, turn him around and serve him another detention order,” explained the human rights lawyer before referring to a specific case that made some headlines further afield. “Mahmoud went through it for three years of his life and for nothing.”
Mahmoud Sarsak. A football player who took his talent further than most, played for his country’s Olympic team and even got capped at senior international level in games against China and Iraq. By 2009 his skills were good enough to help him escape Gaza, and he excitedly left for the West Bank one morning with a gear bag and all necessary papers en route to join his new club Balata Youth. A few hours later though he began a jail sentence having been seized by Israeli security forces on the pretext he was an unlawful combatant. Unable to see his family, and with no trial, he started into a gruelling incarceration where there were claims he was subjected to physical and mental torture.
Having waited for intervention from the wider world of sport over such a breach of human rights, the day came when he realised no help was coming. After all, during his own stint in prison, Zakaria Issa, another Palestinian international player who had been locked away, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died not long after his release. It was then that Sarsak decided he had to help himself and the only option he saw was to go on a hunger strike that would last a sickening 97 days. When he was finally freed, he had lost nearly half of his weight and a whole lot more of his mind.
“Of course the thought about going on hunger strike is very tiring and very scary for an individual to contemplate, but in the three years I was in prison I observed a lot of death happening,” Sarsak said after his release. “When my friend Zakaria Issa was diagnosed with cancer and died because he was refused treatment, that was when I lost hope and realised I would have to do things myself. He played for the national team but Uefa and Fifa stood by and didn’t do anything. In that moment I lost all hope that international organisations would interfere and save me so I decided to go on hunger strike. The decision was very difficult to make between your own life and freedom, but freedom was much more important than everything you would call life without freedom.
“And of course during this time I saw death many, many times due to tiredness and thirst and fell unconscious many times. Those days were so difficult that I cannot put them into words; I cannot describe how hard they were. And after losing more than half my body weight it was very difficult when I resumed eating. Before seeing my parents again, Israel treated me for 20 days, but unfortunately they gave me blood which was dirty, it was the same blood group but because it was filled with viruses it took me seven months to recover.” Yet exactly a year after he came off his hunger strike, the final of the European Under-21 Championships were a celebration in and of Israel.
“In his case and in many more,” continued the human rights lawyer, “they had this process of internment, where they can detain people for up to six months without having to charge them or have any trial and they can renew those sentences indefinitely. So you’ve people who have spent 10 years without trial. It’s similar to what went on in Northern Ireland during the Troubles with Catholics when they were locked away without any trial or reason or humanity. And treatment by the Israeli Prison Service and interrogation, it would be quite bad. There are lots of cases of torture.
“There was a Palestinian a while back that died after being interrogated. His autopsy was bad – marks down his back, blood in his nose, bruises on his chest. Related to that, there’s the impunity with the army, police, prison services. There were a lot of people going on hunger strike as they were fed up with this. But our organisation has spoken to a lot to wives of prisoners and in many ways what happens is worse than a set sentence because there’s the uncertainty. With this, every six months they are hopeful, but then it happens again and the husbands are thrown back inside again.”
Yet it’s within such an environment you can only admire people who take it upon themselves to make the horrific slightly less gruesome as it can be a lot of effort for little gain. Then again, anything can seem a big help when you start out with nothing.
Meet Rasha Ali, a former Palestinian swimmer, one of the few female boxers in the country as of now and one of those behind Palestinian MMA, a non-profit mixed martial arts group that aims to harness anger and discipline amongst the vast swathes of disaffected youth. As for her own youth, even though her father was Minister for Labour and Planning, there still wasn’t what normality would describe as shelter or safety. The initial family home in Ramallah was near a settlement and just a month after they moved out of it, rising tension saw it pockmarked by bullet holes.
Yet even then there was no escape from this reality. “We moved to Abu Kash, the village between Ramallah and Birzeit University. But they built a check-point for about three years there, and every day we’d walk to school, there’d be the checkpoint, and even in the rain they’d stop us and I’d get to school late covered in mud. We’d get shot at going to school. I used to ask my Dad why he was making us go through alleys to get to class on time. It’s when I decided I didn’t want to study here.”
Instead Ali went to university in the States in the mid-2000s although despite the tough but inescapable surrounds of her upbringing, she’d never laced a glove before. However the journey towards the ring began when sitting in a Carolina restaurant one evening and listening to some drunken local girls at nearby table shout down a waitress. ‘Hey bitch, get me my fries. Where’s my straw bitch?’ Ali threw a look, got caught and shortly after was being beaten in the car park, had her shoulder and eye damaged and a piercing was torn from her face. It was then she took to a gym.
“I liked the States but I was born and raised here and came back in 2009. I was only in the sport for six or seven months at that stage but even the few boxing trainers here said we don’t train girls. I started learning by myself but eventually came across a guy called Nadir. I found his class great. He keeps updating, watching, reading. He knows about motivation, how to talk to athletes. So I talked to him about Palestine MMA and since then, me and him are volunteering and trying to get it going. We want to make enough money to keep it running and this is why we didn’t open a gym yet. So we give classes now but are fundraising to the point we can open something sustainable for people.
“It’s martial arts specific but it’s not only sport, it’s also spirit and soul empowerment, because it teaches you how to focus. These sports teach you how to use your body, to respect your body, how to understand the person in front of you, how to have confidence. If you look here at kids in the street, they don’t have confidence in themselves and are looking at ways of getting out their anger. They can’t go to school or get a job, but MMA teaches you how to stay on the ground and actually believe in yourself. If they learn MMA or judo of kung-fu, they will have confidence, knowing they can beat the person in front of them and they will know they don’t need to prove a point. So they’ll handle the situation in a different way.
“Because of that I think MMA should be our top priority in Palestine because we have a lot of anger and are living in a conflict zone and it teaches you these crucial things. In countries like Brazil for example, they have a lot of gang wars and wars in the streets and this is why they focus on MMA. It teaches them how to get out of street fights and allows them to engage in healthy sports.” Working out of a small, under-equipped room at present, there’s a longer-term plan to not only buy a premises but to get more involved in the refugee camps. Indeed the ultimate aim is to bus kids in and out of those camps for daily sessions.
But sport can only go so far and you tell Ali the story of Mahmoud Sarsak and what has happened to sports people across Palestine at the hands of Israel. Ali says you have to remain positive in such a place and recalls working for the Palestinian Trade Centre across the border, how her employer’s big partnership was with the Peres Peace Centre and how she came across Tami Hay during her time there. That candle in a place that can seem destined to remain dark, you remember, and the sort of Israeli woman who gives Ali and others hope that in future their corpses will be buried only the once.
* * *
If you’re one of those people that think sport and politics don’t mix, here you learn they masquerade as one another, all a means to a pre-determined victory that’s always off the pitch. It’s a game influenced by those who politic their way through the killing fields and in Dublin, a big player is Nurit Tinari-Modai, Israeli’s deputy ambassador and cultural officer in her nation’s embassy here. She also happens to be niece of football super-agent Pini Zahavi, a man it’s said that can trade not only in players but in clubs, and who was a key cog in Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea.
Consistently, Tinari-Modai has been a source of huge controversy and division. Not so long back, in an expose on Israel’s Channel 10 News, it was revealed that she advocated a campaign of smears, intimidation and falsification against Israeli’s human rights activists that sought solidarity with their Palestinian neighbours and suggested sexual identity problems lay behind their efforts and wishes. Meanwhile during the recent Gaza conflict, she accused those that were protesting against Israel’s operations of being “ignorant [and] anti-Semitic with an intensely rooted hatred of Jews… They threaten, they demonstrate in cities and towns. This is the mob standing behind the call for boycotting Israeli goods. It is frustrating, it is challenging, but we have no alternative but to win”.
Of course she can be charming and when she speaks to you, at one instance she veers into the personal. She talks of her son’s rugby playing, she tells you that you must come and see one of his games and she clearly wants to build up a positive rapport with those who interview her. She even mentions that you should meet her influential uncle Zahavi. But after a visit to the Middle-East and after the life-long stain of the sights and sounds and stories on your conscience, it’s not hard to look beyond such offers. “Did you speak with the other side?” she asks after you tell her about your experiences in Palestine. “The Peres Centre? They are nice, they mean well.” You tell her you did and were impressed but given her position and your experiences, you’re here to ask the questions.
Is there much co-operation between Israeli sporting bodies and similar ones in Palestine, you start?
“Listen,” she says, “why don’t we start by saying sport and politics should be kept separate. Sport is a form of culture. But unfortunately in our region, it’s part of the game. I’ll get to your question, but when I heard you were coming I wrote down some points. I think the most important thing is to separate the two things and I’m talking about not involving politics with sport. Unfortunately you know there are boycotts against Israeli sportspeople and it started not today, but long ago. Israel is the only country in the world that participated in three different geographical regions in football. In ’74 the Arab and Muslim members refused to play against us. Since 1992, Israeli clubs were playing in Europe. In basketball we’re among the top European teams too.
“There are boycotts against Israelis in Olympics and qualifiers in all sports. They give a list of excuses to committees not to play with us. They’ve stomach aches, problems with the visas on a particular day. And there are demonstrations against us, in fact I remember in 1997 an Israeli cricket club, and there were demonstrations organised by the Islamic Party of Malaysia so we are used to this. It’s not nice but they involve politics in sport. The worst scenario obviously was the Munich Olympics when the Palestinians murdered innocent Israeli sportspeople. They involve sport in politics and as Jews we are used to this. And when Israel play in Europe, you have these Palestinian flags.”
As a recent example, she cites an article from last July in the Daily Mail about a friendly between French club Lille and Maccabi Tel Aviv held in Austria. Protesters stormed the field and punches were traded with the Israeli players; indeed the newspaper said it “comes amid growing fears of anti-Semitism within Europe”. “It’s not just that,” continues Tinari-Modai as she brings up Itay Shechter, a then Swansea City footballer who was refused access to Dubai for a 2013 pre-season training camp.
“And obviously the recent war has disrupted Israeli sports because of people having to live near shelters due to Hamas rockets. So this is also their politics interfering in sport and there are many cases of this and you don’t see this in the mainstream media. They don’t talk about it because it’s much easier to say Israel is the bad guy. They forget that what we get all the time is discrimination, boycotts, violence but it’s no big deal because you know, for us yes, for them no.”
Bouncing from topic to topic, past to future, good to bad, hate to hope, she goes on to recall the 1991 film ‘Cup Final’. Set during the 1982 World Cup, it’s about the relationship a young Israeli soldier in Lebanon builds with those who have captured him due to their mutual love of the Italian team at the tournament. “Two rivals were sitting together supporting Italy, so sport can unite, it can bring people together,” she adds. “But they make it hard. Take the Uefa under-21 championships.
“Michel Platini said it was excellent, but there was a two-year campaign from the Palestinians not to let us host such an event – which is a great event also for them, for everybody, to go and have fun with sport. I’m glad they didn’t succeed with their anti-sport campaign. Barcelona wanted to come in June 2013 and play a friendly with the Israelis and Palestinians, against a united team, and Messi and all the big guys were coming, yet the Palestinians said no. That’s not fair to the Israeli fans or the Palestinian fans.”
You think about different goals and different interests for different people from different places with very different lives but before you can bring it up, she’s trying to show a side you rarely saw on your journey. “There’s a huge integration of Arab citizens into Israeli sport. People call them Palestinian but they are our citizens. In spite of all these political problems, there are really a huge number of Arabs that are joining Israeli sports team. They actually also contribute to Israeli’s success in the international arena. So getting back to your initial question, it’s very important and the more they’re integrated, the more chances for reconciliation and friendship. It’s very easy for me to tell you they do bad things but why? It’s true, these are facts, what they do. But let’s think about the future. If you continue to say the other side is terrible, you won’t get anywhere.”
It’s at this point you take out the booklet you were given in Ramallah by the Palestinian Olympic Committee. You read her the complaints they have and how they say Israel affects sport in ways ranging from facilities to human rights abuses against their sportspeople. “They see only negative,” retorts Tinari-Modai. “I’m drawing your attention to that, it’s their mentality. They don’t have anything for the Peres Centre for Peace, they don’t write anything about it. Why? Because first of all they are afraid to write about it. I’m saying it’s very easy to say Israel does this and this, but when Israel wants to do positive things with them, they always say no.
“There are two countries, and one is preventing infrastructure and violating human rights? That is not the case. We are not in peace here, we are two entities in a state of war. We are not friends. We want to be friends and no we cannot give them Tel Aviv and our country. This is the destruction of our country, and maybe that’s how they see friendship. We are Jews but we are entitled to human rights. So we are not in a state of friendship. They tried to stop us from the under-21 European tournament, so I could also open the conversation with that. But I’m not. I could tell you they launched 12,000 rockets on us in 10 years. Yes we damaged a football field, it’s terrible but human life is more terrible to lose than a football field. I’m sorry, but one has to think first before they start a war on us. I’m not trying to give you politics, but I’m giving our perspective. They are doing things against us as well so this is part of the so-called game. It’s like a childish game which I do not like.”
Other politicians have never seen it as childish. In the United Kingdom, long-serving Member of Parliament George Galloway has for a lifetime studied the Middle-East and tried to aid the cause of the Palestinians throughout the majority of his 60 years. Indeed the founder and leader of the Respect Party admits, “In more than 40 years involvement in this issue I’ve never paid that much attention to sport on either side, just because of the scale of the disaster is so great”. But that’s not to say it hasn’t occasionally cropped up and he’s used matches involving the Israeli national soccer team to protest, the same sort Tinari-Modai lambasts as involving politics in sport.
“Bill Shankly famously said that football is more important than life and death but of course it is not,” says Galloway. “So I’m not sure the use of sport except for showing the level of struggle. In Gaza for example, before this latest attack on the people there, we made attempts to raise funds to build a football pitch with changing rooms and showers and wrote to every professional football player in England through Gordon Taylor and the Professional Footballers Association. I was hoping given the number of Muslim players that we would raise something, but we raised precisely nothing. The PFA were so embarrassed they made a small donation. I was gobsmacked. I thought a letter on House of Commons notepaper from quite a prominent member of parliament would be read.
“I’m sure these fellas get lots and lots of begging letters, but I thought this might strike a chord, at least with the Muslim players. But precisely none of them did anything about it. But sport can’t pretend it exists separately to society and it has a responsibility to be inclusive and to be particularly sensitive to generate sporting activity in places that are otherwise discriminated against and oppressed. It’s not easy practically though. I arranged in principle with the boxing champion Amir Khan to go to Gaza to do some exhibition bouts in order to generate interest as I’m a boxing fan. He agreed but it became impossible once the coup in Egypt took place as you can’t get people and equipment across the Gaza border. That became even more impossible than under Hosni Mubarak.”
Galloway had an agreement with former Pakistani cricket legend and present-day politician Imran Khan to try and introduce cricket into Gaza too, but that didn’t work either and again for practical reasons that deny the most simple of joys. “It’s not always the case there are no sporting personalities that are willing to help but finding the funding and the political leverage that gets you across the border with all your cricket bats and stumps becomes harder. And it would allow us to internationalise the situation. There have been some games for the Palestinians, they get to walk around the track at the Olympics, they’ve a World Cup team. But Israel must have a strategic goal of stopping recognition and thereby stopping internationalisation of their occupation and siege.”
Galloway was of course right on Shankly. But while sport on its own may not be a matter of life and death, here it’s certainly a part of it. Just as politics is part of sport, and sport is part of politics.
* * *
Through the haze of the ashes from the rubble, and past the tears that have fallen for the many dead, those who’ve tried to see Gaza through the eyes of sport were looking on late in 2014 – some shocked, some dismayed, some outraged, some lost. But there are cases where the latest upsurge in terror and death has made some remarkable people ever more determined to plough past the hopelessness and salvage whatever they can. “Across last summer it was impossible to think about anything except Gaza,” says former rugby professional Trevor Hogan. “The pain was made raw by having people we know there. We were in touch with as many as possible but you wondered the fate of those you didn’t hear from.”
Did they end up like Mohammad Ahmad al-Qatari, a 20-year-old footballer that was shot dead by Israeli troops – a year on from receiving a reassuring handshake from Fifa president Sepp Blatter – making him body bag number 16 in the West Bank within a month for protesting for their brothers? Or like Ahed Zaqout, considered his nation’s greatest ever player, who worked as a coach in Gaza, who had no ties to Hamas, and who at just 49 years of age had every talented muscle and bone in his body destroyed at the start of last August when a bomb landed on top of his house as he slept.
Hogan wants you to know how it happened though and recalls an email from an artist he met called Raed Issa. Having received no phone call about what was to come, it turned out Israelis had called neighbours who told Issa that he and his family must evacuate because their block was about to be levelled. A few minutes later there was the so-called knock-on-the-roof-rocket as a warning. Shortly after, a major airstrike flattened homes and histories. “Because we knew Raed, it brought home the horror and the cynicism of the sadistic Israeli campaign in Gaza,” mentions Hogan.
“Also, the four Bakr boys who were killed on the beach as they were playing football were extended relatives of the fishermen’s spokesperson who we met on our trip. Zakaria Bakr had told us how they experienced regular harassment and violence from the Israeli navy. It is a reminder of how nowhere is safe, how entire families are being devastated. A journalist whom we met, Yousef Al Helou, had shown us around Gaza City and brought us to the museum that had ancient relics dating back 2,000 years. He has lost 12 members of his extended family.”
But Hogan assures you that the under-16 team from Al Helal are still determined to travel to Ireland and that he’s still determined to make it happen. “Many of the updates we received referred to the constant electricity blackouts and the terror caused by the darkness. That was made worse by the sound and impact of the bombing and the knowledge that anywhere could be hit. But there is a deep resilience and pride still clear amongst all the people we met. The people of Gaza won’t give up their struggle to survive. Their dignity and resilience in the face of such overwhelming injustice is inspirational. The siege will be lifted and the slaughter will stop. More than ever, I believe Palestine and Gaza will be free. It has to be. Either that or we can give up on humanity.”
There is of course the flipside and not every Israeli was guilty or involved a few months back, nor were they deserving of what became of their lives. For Tami Hay in Jaffa, she told of the sirens that went off in the middle of the night as rockets were launched and how there was always the worry that the Iron Dome might not do its job and just once they could be on the receiving end. Never sleeping fully just in case she didn’t hear the wailing warning, cooking and washing in a hurry, and with no bomb shelter near home, many nights she spent under a stair case hoping to live as her work is far from finished. “The TV was on from morning to night, hearing all this political bullshit,” she says. “I’ve family in the south and it is still impossible to talk to them because they wanted the government to do what they needed to finish it. Everyone wason edge, it was just constant tension.”
Before you finished this article though and after two years of talking and seeing, learning and understanding, you’ve wanted to return to Hay one last time as a moderate voice as rare as it is interesting. Her stance and place between both sides has seen her physically caught in the middle, but the mental crush has been harder to take. “The extremism and radicalism that surrounded us in all this, that was quite difficult to handle last summer. I don’t remember the last time I was so emotionally broken. It was really hard. We were discussing with our West Bank partners from the sports programme in the Peres Centre, they were calling me when the rockets started. You can imagine, some have relatives in Gaza, calling an Israeli partner asking were those relatives okay.
“And for me, I was thinking about the rockets coming for me, their relatives too, and you were torn. Being aware of all the voices, it’s so difficult during fighting times as it’s much easier to pick sides and be an extremist. For us in our work context though, when the fighting started again, we were at the beginning of a new cycle and the preparation before the kids met needed to be much more intense to bring them to a point they could talk and bring all those feelings out regarding what’s happened now. The war caught us at the end of a successful year where we finished with a good atmosphere, good results, success stories. And we have now gone backwards a long way. We know we’ll hear different voices from the kids and we’ve to be ready, this is reality. And we need to listen to all the voices, all these voices have to be okay because every one of these people will have experienced this on a different level.”
Still in the military reserve, Hay was never called up last summer although she insists friends that were had constant conversations about avoiding civilian casualties and “that’s not some Israeli propaganda”. She says too that the problem now is that even those to the left of the political spectrum have become anxious about even pulling out of somewhere as relatively quiet as the West Bank for fear it too could turn into a shooting range for Hamas or, worse, the Islamic State. “How can I promise the people it would be calm. No one can trust something positive will happen.” And she says her explanation to herself amidst all of this is, despite the possibility of being called-up for duty, is that she’s still free to speak out and would at least be able to voice her concerns about civilians.
“From the outside what you saw a few months back was horrible and the Gazan people are the poorest in all this. They’ve no one to defend them. But from the outside, you see there’s a rational solution as we are so emotionally involved, both sides, we don’t see it rationally. It’s not just about a military solution, there needs to be a political agreement. Gaza is the most densely populated place on earth and for me, military action cannot win a war against a terror group there. We have to find a political solution. I’ll tell you one instance of how there’s hope though. During the war, when it started, we’d a delegation of kids from both sides in Brazil. They were playing together while there was bombing and killing back here. They were happy and only working with kids can give hope.
“Kids who enjoy our projects, playing in neutral teams, they understand this is possible where adults have given up on each other. So our sports programme, I still believe in this. It won’t solve the problem but it can push the idea that there’s another way. We don’t have to hate each other. But it’s just a very sad and disturbing time for us and, okay, I work with kids in the West Bank. They’ve met Israelis but the kids from Gaza, they never had a chance to meet one. They only know of Israelis from wars. I want to meet people and kids from Gaza and show there are other voices in Israel.”
Will it happen in your lifetime, you ask?
“It depends on what day you ask me,” Hay sighs.
You go further and tell her your theory about sport and her work. While some like to think that sport unites, you believe that’s only when there’s a wider will. The truth is that sport merely reflects society, and in the Middle-East that’s no different. All in all, sport doesn’t influence life, rather it mirrors it. So, with that in mind, you ask Hay what she sees when she stares in such a mirror.
“Well sometimes I’ve a dream we can change this and sport can play a part,” she says before pausing. “But sometimes you think maybe it’s just a nightmare none of us on either side can ever escape.”