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Some parents on both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide still hesitate to let their kids enter PPI's programs—Jews out of safety concerns and Arabs because of cultural norms for girls. But the chance to get good coaching at no cost, plus uniforms and occasional travel, has enticed some 5,600 participants. "They all come for sport," PPI Middle East director Karen Doubilet tells me. " 'Meet the other side' is just something they put up with in order to do what they really want to do."
Children ages 10 to 14 participate in PPI's "twinning" program, in which Jews and Arabs at first practice regularly in their home communities, then combine into mixed teams under two coaches (one Arab and one Jewish) and meet weekly throughout the school year. At 15 they're eligible to become PPI coaches themselves; last season two teams of 15- and 16-year-old Arab and Jewish girls competed in the Israeli first division under the PPI banner. Meanwhile, in hoops-deprived parts of the West Bank such as Ramallah and nearby refugee camps, PPI continues to offer its "single-identity" program to boost the level of Palestinian basketball, provide constructive outlets for kids' energy and train coaches as leaders.
Once PPI gets them, most participants buy into the coexistence component. It's based on a curriculum, developed by a U.S.-based conflict-resolution think tank called the Arbinger Institute, that supplies strategies for exploring why one side stigmatizes the other and how to change those attitudes. "After Arbinger they might still clique up," says Heni Bizawi, who has played and coached in the program, "but according to different variables, like Jaffa versus Jerusalem instead of Arab versus Jew."
Peace Players has helped make a fan of Raneem Nashef, a 12-year-old Arab who lives in the West Jerusalem enclave of Beit Safafa. She'll wake up early to watch TV broadcasts involving her favorite player, Omri Casspi, the Jewish Israeli who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Her mother, Lubna, who grew up despising the yellow and blue of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Casspi's old club, catches me by surprise: "My daughter feels Casspi represents her. She knows he comes from her part of the world."
In the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict, progress is measured in tiny steps. "A lot of people in my school don't like Arabs and don't know that I play PPI," says Naomi Goldstein, 14. "I don't tell them."
Amir Abu Dalu, 19, an Arab who's now a PPI coach, also keeps his counsel: "Otherwise I might get in trouble."
But a tiny step is a step just the same. First a bus ride, then a basketball game, ultimately the realization that someone you thought was your enemy makes a pretty good teammate. "In basketball it's easy to communicate," says Dalu. "You can play a game and connect, just like that."
Johann Olav Koss runs Right To Play out of Canada's largest city, and University of Toronto professor and former Olympic distance runner Bruce Kidd has been a reliable sounding board for him. I've turned up at Kidd's office because SDP is one of his academic specialties, and I'm looking for a sense of where the movement has been and where it might go.
In the 19th century, English-speaking exporters of sport, freighted with ulterior motives such as imperialism and evangelism, held attitudes strikingly different from those of Luke Dowdney, Tommy Clark and Brendan Tuohey. The Victorians took their "Games Ethic" from the playing fields of Eton and sent it overseas to "civilize" the ancestors of many of the very people engaged by SDP today.