Israeli children from Sderot and Gaza-border communities came together with Palestinian kids from the West Bank on Monday for the opening ceremony of the Peres Center for Peace's annual after-school soccer program.
"You will spread word of the games, of peace instead of confrontations," said former president Shimon Peres. "Everyone loves to play soccer, regardless of religion or nationality. You need peace, and you will carry the message of peace."
Some 80 students, Israelis and Palestinians, arrived for the season's first training session – after the end of the 50-day-long Operation Protective Edge, when the kids of Sderot and other southern communities were forced to either stay near shelter or leave to other parts of the country.
They were met by Palestinian children from Jerico and Yatta, south of Mt. Hebron. The Twinned Peace Sports Schools (TPSS) soccer program includes boys and girls age nine to 12.
The coach of the Yatta squad, Ahmed al-Jericho, said: "Our children think only of soccer, they love to play soccer – they don't care if it is with Jews or non-Jews. They are kids and all they care about is leaving together in peace, that's what they want."
The Palestinian coach emphasized that "they love to meet Israeli children. It challenges them to play against them, and there is something very special, very heart-warming, about this – especially now, after everything Israel has been through."
Roi, one of the kids from Sderot said he was a long-time participant of the program. "I have been taking part in this project for a while and I love playing with Palestinian kids who are soccer fiends just like us, it creates a bond between us."
The director-general of the Peres Center, Efrat Duvdevani, said that the center "sees the importance of strengthening and encouraging the message of peace through sports. Sport is a common language the bridges gaps and lowers barriers."
Alon Shuster, the head of the Sha'ar HaNegev Regional Council, participated in the ceremony for the first training session, along with the Israeli and Palestinian coaches.