Football and peace in the Middle East

By Dr Joel Rookwood

How has football for peace worked in the Middle East?- Some observations:

The Middle East can be considered a transcontinental region comprising approximately 370 million people who speak more than sixty languages and live across seventeen countries. The Eurocentric term is of British origin and was coined and first applied as a prefix to ‘question’, as a mark of the strategic importance yet disputed understanding of the region. Its geopolitical, economic and cultural significance has been recognized for millennia. Numerous world religions trace their origins to the Middle East. The region, like others, has a long association with ethno-religious conflicts, ideological struggles and resource and territorial disputes.

Despite having fought wars with its neighbours (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), civil conflict has perhaps proven the most consistent threat to peace and stability in Israel. Relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have frequently dominated international news. Few efforts to build peace across ethno-religious divides have proven successful, in Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

Some agencies have prioritized projects and campaigned for policies and provision which emphasize the identification of and focus on commonalities, mutual cooperation and equality. However, in a militaristic and splintered society, where ethnic divisions run deep and trust does not, encouraging Jews and Arabs to build meaningful, lasting and mutually beneficial relations has challenged those striving to contribute to peace building in the region.

Sports such as football has been employed in this context. The use of competitive invasion sports centred on binary oppositions has been contested. Israel’s capital city is home to Beitar Jerusalem, a football club whose supporter base includes dominant Jewish nationalist fractions strongly opposed to Muslims. Importantly, such racist attitudes and behaviours are certainly not held by all football fans in Israel.

As with most social and sporting activities, football is not a priori good or bad, but can produce a range of positive as well as negative outcomes. In relation to participation (both on and off the field), football’s potential as a vehicle to promote social construction or deconstruction is largely dependent on how related engagements are presented, perceived, experienced and remembered. The ‘pacifist potential of football’ to which the seminal work of Sugden is associated with has been crucial in a project that has been implemented in Israel since 2001.

For most of that period the ‘Football for Peace’ (F4P) initiative has been run by Professor Sugden and his colleagues from University of Brighton in collaboration with others from further afield. The project has been subject to valuable academic research, but Sugden’s editorial collection on the project perhaps best represents the diversity of disciplinary lenses through which the initiative has been scrutinized.

F4P has sought to make grass-roots interventions into Middle Eastern sporting culture, contributing towards peaceful integration in the often violent, mistrusting and detached Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. The initiative has employed a specifically designed value-based football coaching model, in which all aspects of the programme are underpinned by neutrality, inclusion, respect, trust and responsibility.

Working with mixed groups of Arab and Jewish boys or girls from a similar area, student coaches from Britain collaborate with local coaches and respected community leaders who also serve as translators. Each programme begins with trust building exercises and concludes with mixed-team tournaments on designated festival days. The project has also developed some year-round cross-cultural collaboration, whilst diversifying the locations (such as Northern Ireland) and sporting applications (including rugby).

Such initiatives present a number of inherent challenges, pertaining for instance to practical and linguistic issues, as well as monitoring and evaluation and risk management. I was among the group of fifty F4P students and staff who were checked in and waiting to board a flight to Tel Aviv in July 2006 when news broke of the Lebanon conflict that had begun hours earlier in northern Israel.

Engaging in complex and dangerous locations, it is difficult to demonstrate and prove that such initiatives work, and that they are worth the risks involved. Training volunteers is demanding and preparing personnel to work in potentially perilous environments is fraught with challenges – and the impact of a project will always depend in part on the effectiveness of its staff.

For the participants, some perceive and receive such initiatives as political engagements, others view them as programmes that ‘make a difference’ whilst some merely consider them an opportunity to play football. It is not possible to fully represent, reconcile or explain such diversity, but it is important to remember that even well-intentioned, effectively managed projects will not always have the desired impact on every recipient.

Setting such initiatives in context however, peace seems as elusive in Israel. There is a continual need for constructive, internationally mediated dialogue and collaboration, cross-cultural relationship building, mutually reliant and beneficial infrastructure, and meaningfully representative and constructive politics.

There is need for international pressure around a long list of issues which may include:

• Illegal Israeli Settlements in the West Bank;
• Sporadic Palestinian attacks on Jews living in Israel;
• Protection of the rights of Arabs living in both Palestinian and Israeli territories;
• An end to the forced reclamation of Palestinian homes;
• An increase in aid, support and peace building in Gaza;
• Reinstatement and then normalization of relations with Lebanon,
• Resettlement of Palestinian refugee communities currently residing in Lebanon and Jordan;
• A permanent ceasefire in Syria;
• The removal of land mines at the Golan Heights and other international borders;
• Increased security cooperation and diplomatic mediation with Egypt; an end to the construction (and eventual removal) of the West Bank Wall; and
• What improved economic ties with all neighbouring countries. Faced with such an array of challenges, micro-level projects might seem insignificant –

Other issues could be added to this list If they can be connected with other initiatives, a coalition for peace could grow in strength and increase in impact.

During the process of working on football-based peace building projects I have interviewed dozens of local and international advocates in Israel, and in nations such as Liberia, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Bosnia and Russia. If intra- and inter-project analysis produces robust evidence that sporting programmes such as F4P are worth the risk and resources, that football can reach beyond the political rhetoric and actually contribute to peace building, then long may these programmes develop.

It is worth remembering however, that whatever vehicle is used to drive Israel in the direction of peace, however well intended ‘cultural engagements’ such as F4P might be, coverall responses rarely solve complicated problems, especially at the intersection of ingrained mutual distrust and fragile peace.

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