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  • Mary L. Hanna

Shanti Sena Stories: The Magic of Football

2007 July 20

Managing a football (soccer) team is never easy, especially Old City Hebron’s 10 to 12 year old boys team. The asphalt street in front of our CPT apartment is now our practice field. The street is 28 feet wide by 100 feet long, with 5 inch curbs running lengthwise through it. One side of the field is the central Israeli Defense Force (IDF) base in Hebron, with sentries looking from their rooftop straight down onto the boys. One goal is shoved up against the steel bars and razor wire separating the Old City Palestinians from the Israeli settlers trying to take over the Old City. Everyday a few stones come flying into the middle of practice from jealous settler boys hiding behind the concrete mini-wall just beyond the razor wire.

There are other places the boys could practice. But those places have even more serious drawbacks. They used to practice one mile away at the girls’ secondary school. But the shebaab (teen-age boys) there harassed the team, the adults, and each other so much that practice was unworkable. Our street turns out to be so much more convenient that the team is now practicing every afternoon.

Zleekha, the team ‘mother’ and our neighbor, first hired a blacksmith to weld together steel frames for both goals. Then she got the boys to spend an afternoon cleaning up all the trash and dirt and rocks on the street. She found a Palestinian young man who has extraordinary football footwork skills, and is willing to coach (He also provides employment every morning for at least 15 boys, who walk the streets of the Old City selling his Palestinian “donuts”). (Runa, the Norwegian who had been coaching, finished his term here and returned to Norway.) And finally, she got the city to send its street sweeping machine and really scour our street last Thursday. It is the cleanest we have ever seen it in 12 years here.

But the same day, the commander of the IDF base ordered the boys to not play in our street because “the ball might knock the steel gate open”. He apparently threatened to arrest the coach, who therefore had to leave immediately (the boys are too young to be arrested). But after the commander left, the boys continued playing anyway.

The next afternoon an IDF squad arrived in our street. “This street is closed to football practice, because someone broke through the steel bars separating you from the settlers, because someone set two fires in the abandoned buildings under the IDF sentries, because your ball will fly over the fence and wall, and because we fear more trouble if the boys are practicing here.”

Zleekha responded, “These boys did not break through the steel bars while they were busy playing. They did not set any fires. Why are you punishing them collectively for the wrongs done by others? You accuse us of teaching our children terrorism. Here we are teaching them football, and you stop us. What are you teaching them?”

A soldier asked me, “Why are you here, living among the Palestinians?” I responded, “We are not your opponent. We are not opposed to your living here. But we want you to live here in peace and reconciliation with the people of Palestine, not with guns and fear.”

Another soldier responded, “But we can not trust the Palestinians. Some, maybe even most, of them are not violent. But some are.” I responded, “That’s because you control their lives, with a thousand checkpoints and roadblocks. You treat them like prisoners. You will not let them travel to Jerusalem, or Israel, where they could earn a living. At the end of the day, you get to go to Israel. They do not.”

As Zleekha, my CPT mates and I engaged several soldiers in conversation, the other soldiers began to interact with the boys. They began to join in kicking the soccer ball around, laughing and jostling with the Palestinian teen-agers.

Suddenly a moment of magic occurred. One of the Palestinian boys said, “There are five soldiers, and five of us. Can we play a match with them? … If they win, the street is closed. If we win, the street stays open.” The faces of the soldiers lit up. It quickly became obvious they liked the idea. They were excited to play. (Soldiers here spend most of their time standing guard, doing nothing but watch Palestinians. Their life is exquisitely boring.)

The squad leader said he would call for other soldiers to take their guns and field packs (IDF soldiers never put their guns or packs down when they are in a Palestinian area). Zleekha said, with a twinkle in her eye, “I will take care of your guns and packs.” The leader chuckled.

But when the base commander appeared on the rooftop looking down onto the street, he declined to allow the match. The squad was obviously disappointed. After a few minutes they left. The boys resumed playing. Soon, the ball sailed over both the fence and the concrete wall and onto the settler street. Just them a settler van came along, and braked hard. By the time we got onto their street, the ball was nowhere to be found.

A little later, the commander, who had introduced himself as Israel, stepped through the gap in the concrete wall, alone, and approached the steel bars just behind the goal. I approached him from the Palestinian side of the bars. “May I make a suggestion? If you weld on steel bars to complete the fence, then no one can get through and it will be secure for everyone. And we can hang a large net above the goal, so the ball can not fly over the fence, and no boys will need to go on your side to retrieve it.” He replied, “Those are good ideas, worth thinking about.”

Turning to Zleekha, he said, “The boys may play one hour each afternoon.” Zleekha replied, “They need to practice more than one hour a day. They need three hours a day.” By the end of the conversation, he had agreed to let the boys play from 4 to 7 pm every day.

The boys have played football each day since. Sometimes the soldiers come. But they have, so far, not asked the boys to stop playing.

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