Jerusalem Peace Team loses game, wins hearts

With the Streets of Jerusalem burning with hatred, fear and violence and a seeming lack of leadership on both sides of the conflict, a group of fourteen Israelis and Palestinians put themselves on the line in Umag, Croatia this past Saturday. The group competed in the Axios European Australian Rules Football Euro-Cup Championship for the first time. Although they did not win any games and were beaten by Austria, Denmark, Norway and Holland, they did win the hearts and respect of all the other teams in the Tournament, proving that Israelis and Palestinians can work together for life, dialogue and peace.

The Jerusalem Peace Team is the initiative of Yonatan Belik, a 25-year-old student from the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) who played for two previous Peace Teams that competed in the AFL World Cups in Melbourne in 2008 and 2011. Yonatan loves the game and has been involved in Seeds of Peace an organization that helps bring kids from conflict regions to summer camps and helps them learn to live together often using team sports to help them bond. Together with other Israeli and Palestinian students from Jerusalem Yonatan launched the current AFL Peace Team despite unusually high recent tensions in the city.

“We want to show that there is another way,” said one 22-year-old student from East Jerusalem. With one eye focused on the game in progress his words reflected the optimism he felt at being a member of the AFL Peace Team, consisting of players from East and West Jerusalem. A fellow team mate from West Jerusalem affirmed his friend’s words. Both spoke of the success of the training camp with workshops emphasizing teamwork, communication and trust, as well as the importance of sharing expectations, feelings and fears. Palestinian and Israeli facilitators also held dialogue sessions, enabling players to share and air their feelings.

On the way to Umag the team flew into Venice and stopped at the largest memorial in Italy to soldiers killed in WWI at Redipuglia where more than 100,000 soldiers from WWI are buried. There they saw for themselves that a war that politicians thought would last two months ended up lasting more than four years and resulted in the unnecessary death of more than 10 million people. As tensions flared in Jerusalem the team vowed to fight for life and represent the interests of the silent majority of Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for peace and security but whose voice is marginalized by religious extremists who perpetuate a cycle of violence and death.

From the battlefields of WWI the Team went on to Umag to prepare for the Tournament. The team is supported by the Brisbane Lions football team who donated the guernseys that the team wore. The Irish Team gave the Peace Team an honour guard as they walked on to the ground for their first game against a larger and more experienced Austrian team. The Austrians started better in the first half but the Peace Team matched the Austrian Team in the second half with incredibly determined play. The Peace Team was first to the ball, tackled hard and played their best football of the Tournament. In the second half they drew on goals with the Austrians with full-forward and veteran player Kfir Kol scoring a great goal and Eitan Nehemia playing well in the centre. Afterwards, the Austrians said they were surprised by the athleticism and determination of the Peace Team and were forced to work much harder than they expected.

The second game was against Denmark the eventual champions of the competition and the Peace Team was thrashed but the defense of Avi Benvinisty, Adam Fink, Majd Awad and Avi Landesman worked hard against repeated attacks from the Danes.

The third game against Holland was a very close and physical strongly contested by both teams. The Dutch kicked with a very strong wind in the first half scoring 5 goals to none. The Peace Team attacked hard in the second half with the wind and captain Yonatan Belik started to dominate at centre half forward kicking two great goals. The team outscored the Dutch in the second half, but could not make up the five goal deficit from half-time. The young center players Nadeem Kaloti and Osama Siam started to display their speed and determination and ruckman Wael Shama and Tsadek Snena fought hard.

The final game against Norway was also very close between two evenly matched teams. As everyone’s legs started to tighten up the Team refused to give up as it desperately tried to win its first game. Belik, Nehemia and Benvenisty played well but in the end the more experienced Norwegian Team won by 24.

Last year’s champions, the Danish, faced off against the smaller but quicker Irish in the final with the Peace Team providing a reciprocal honor guard as the Irish ran on to the field. The Danish Team came back from 20 points down at half time in the rain to win the final in an amazing display of skill and power. The Danish have developed a genuine football culture over 25 years with children in primary school learning the game. They have set a benchmark that the Peace Team hopes to emulate.

Considering that ten of the Peace Team’s 14 players had never before played a proper game of footy, their performance was exceptional. What they lacked in skill they more than made up for in spirit and determination and the Peace Team’s Belik was awarded the Best Manager of the Tournament. The sounds of the darbuka drum beat and the Peace Team singing contributed immensely to the overall atmosphere of the Tournament. Eitan Nehemia was awarded the Peace Team’s Best Player award.

The coach of the team, Simon Fink, learnt to play football in Melbourne over 40 years ago, and now lives in Israel. He is incredibly proud of the Team and thinks that what the Peace Team is doing is inspiring. Fink believes that playing and winning a game of Australian Rules Football is similar to advancing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and co-operation. Both require focusing on solutions. “If you’re not part of the solution”, says Fink, “then you are part of the problem.” As a parent he tries to teach his kids to fight for peace as hard as they have been taught to fight to win wars and his son Adam is a player in the Team.

When the Peace Team landed back at Ben Gurion airport the flight attendant explained to the passengers who the Peace Team was and what they were doing on the flight. They received a heartwarming round of applause. Fink says that the Peace Team represents the views of the silent majority of Palestinians and Israelis who believe first and foremost in human life. The team is choosing to live life with hope and yearns for peace like most ordinary people on both sides of the conflict.

Yonatan Belik the Team Manager says that the Peace Team goes one step further by actually advancing dialogue and cooperation and that the Team is prepared to fight for this value on the football field. In the future he hopes to create a sustainable Football culture & framework in Israel and Palestine similar to Denmark under the auspices of the AFL Peace Team brand. In the short-term Belik wants to double the size of the Team and hopes to compete in an 18 a side tournament in Europe in 2016.

Upon returning home, the players now had to face the challenges of daily life in an inflamed Jerusalem.

After the tournament one Israeli player said that we need to learn to shepherd each other in life they way we do on the field. A Palestinian player said in the same vein that going against the herd and kicking against the wind is tough but that we fight for what we believe in and that the tournament makes him feel that we are winning and that we are getting stronger and are one. Another Palestinian member of the team summed up his feelings as follows: “We have created all together something amazing in the darkest moments we are passing through. I can feel that our bond has grown stronger and with it we will achieve something great! I am feeling happy and warm, and safe knowing that I am part of the Peace Team family.”

Jerusalem Lions Peace Team at Axios Euro Cup 2015
Jerusalem Lions Peace Team at Axios Euro Cup 2015

This post was written with the assistance of Peace Team manager Yonatan Belik and coach Simon Fink.

About the Author
Hannah lives in Melbourne, Australia.