by Annika Pinch
As what the Israeli’s call Operation Protective Edge-a violent escalation between Hamas and the Israeli government continues, life goes on as normal in Jerusalem’s Old City. Nikolaos Ninos, a Greek dentist who has resided in the Old City his entire life, takes me to the Notre Dame Hotel and around the streets of the Old City. After speaking perfect Arabic with a waiter at Notre Dame, Ninos then speaks flawless Hebrew with the owner of a nearby café. Ninos tells me he knows and writes in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Greek, and French and has also learned to speak both Italian and Spanish from his neighbors. While we walk through the small, winding streets of the Old City, people greet him, “Doctor! Doctor!” as he is not only a respected dentist, but an amiable man who works to build peace amongst Israelis and Palestinians.
Even during such bleak political times, there are people that believe that peace happens between the people and not between politicians. An interview with Nikolaos Ninos confirmed that there are programs that promote peace no matter the political turmoil. Many years ago, Ninos started a soccer club for Palestinians and Israelis to come together and learn about each other.
Nikolaos Ninos holding up a jersey with their team name, St. Dimitri/Image by: Annika Pinch
An Alternative to Stone Throwing?
Ninos formed the soccer club at the beginning of the first intifada when schools were on strike. As Ninos describes,
“My wife was driving in one day and she told me some kids threw some stones on the car she was driving. It was about lunchtime and I said, “I’ll go down and talk to them”…and I did, and I asked them, “Did you throw some stones?” And they very proudly said, “Yes, we did”… so I said, “So why do you do it?” And they said, “We have nothing to do, normally we’d be at school but now the schools are on strike and we’re out”…So I said, “What would you really like to do?” And they said, “Play football”. So I said, “Fine let’s go. Since we don’t have a ball, here’s 100 shekels, go and get a ball. I live up the road, number 14, come and knock and we’ll go play”. And they said, “Really?” And I said, “Yes, if that’s what you really want to do, let’s do it”. And they came back very proud because the ball cost 120 shekels but they got it for 100, because they bargained. So that was the first training, this is how we started.”
This was the beginning of the St. Dimitri soccer club, which promotes mutual understanding and trust amongst Palestinian and Israeli kids. When questioned about who the soccer club is open to, Ninos responds,
“Yes, it’s open and yes we do have Palestinians and Israelis. That’s the policy. First is: respect. And the second is: no boycott. It’s open to everybody, it’s just to play against any team that invites us to play, whether it’s in Palestinian territories or Israeli, we go and play.”
For the Love of Soccer
In a situation where Palestinian and Israeli kids play together, the common assumption would be that the kids might make it political. Ninos explains that,
“We’re not a political movement; we are just there for the love of the game.”
He further explains that the Palestinian and Israeli kids actually take care and look out for each other,
“The Israelis were always taking care of the younger Palestinian kids and making sure that they took breaks and got water from the fountain, very, very friendly. In fact, they insisted on playing together.”
With lots of kids of different ages, it would be hard to train and maintain a regular schedule. Ninos speaks to this by saying,
“No we couldn’t have a regular schedule, nothing was regular. It was mainly meeting once or twice a week and then the kids- instead of engaging in stone throwing, they would get together and play soccer in the park or down the hill or outside Jaffa Gate, or the Armenian Quarter or the Jewish Quarter, or wherever they could find some area.”
The club does not only have kids, there are adults as well. When they play games or annual competitions, they have to split up their team so each group can play in their respective age divisions.
“Once a year we regularly participate in a tournament organized by Tel Aviv and the kids like it because its an outing, we combine sports with visits to churches or mosques or synagogues, archeological sites, and a dip in the sea, and visit, like it or not, McDonalds.”
Advertising the Club: “Soccer without Frontiers”/Image by: Annika Pinch
Getting to Know the Other
The question remains, how does an initiative like this build peace? Does simply playing soccer together really establish mutual understanding and trust between Palestinians and Israelis? For Ninos,
“It’s normal when you are cornered, when you are deprived, humiliated, striped of your dignity to fight back if you’re alive…but if you have a way of life, you have an alternative, if you’re offered an alternative, it’s your choice whether to throw stones or to play soccer and participate in some form of activity which is constructive…basically I give the example of Europe, now, in theory at least it’s a peaceful continent, and there, there are differences of nationality, different cultures, different religions, but they find a way out.”
Many people worry that when Israelis and Palestinians come together peacefully; it is a way of normalizing the status quo and can be detrimental to the Palestinian situation. When asked if people critique his club for being a normalization project, he responds,
“I don’t know, I’m sure they do. Yes because you get different opinions. Some people, Israelis would like the normalization, and that could unfortunately be used for political gain. Now the Palestinians also like normalization, but they are more defensive, if I may use a soccer term, because they mistrust, they have been bitten, but I think it’s normal for kids to want to play and in a way we are all kids. No matter how old you are, it’s absolutely normal, and kids should not be restricted in any way. On the contrary, the idea behind it is not to come out and win a game or to score goals. The idea is to get to know the other side and to get to know your self also by getting to know the other side. It is to learn. It’s educational.”
The aim of the soccer club therefore, is to learn about the other side and realize the other is a kid just like your self.
“It’s enriching your soul by learning more about other people, about your neighbor. After all we are neighbors, like it or not, we have to be. We are destined to live together. You cannot get rid of the Palestinians, it’s been mentioned, it was on the agenda. People, politicians, Israelis in high places have mentioned that there is a Palestinian state and the capital is Amman, you know in Jordon. There has been talk of displacement of populations; I don’t think it’s a nice way to deal with any people. You cannot get rid of Palestinians, you cannot get rid of Israelis, why should you? They’re here, especially the ones who have been here for centuries, peacefully- coexistence.”
Ninos with the owner of a nearby café in front of his dental office/Image by: Annika Pinch
Hope for the Future
It is these types of project-oriented activities that bring people together. Such activities become part of building peace and establishing mutual trust and friendship. Ninos emphasizes,
“It’s the only way. We should not expect the Quartet1, or the English, or the Turks, or the Greeks, or the French to bring peace. We have to build peace ourselves. And peace is there really, it’s just other interests that deprive us of a peaceful coexistence.”
By looking at other continents, we can see that countries have overcome wars and times of political tension.
“I mean look at Europe, there’s two major wars, but they’re over now and there’s pretty much an understanding between the nations. There are problems, of course, but people go around their daily lives, their vacations, and their projects and interests freely. Here, we’ve had a long conflict. People are thrown into battles that are not theirs to fight. They’re fighting somebody else’s battle.”
What has sparked this most recent conflict is teenagers having been killed on both sides, they have become embroiled in someone else’s battle. They too, I am sure, would have preferred to play soccer in the Old City and might have realized that ‘the others’ are kids just like themselves. Ninos expresses his hopes for the future and the future of the club,
“Ever since we started in the late 80s, I was advised to have a website…someday hopefully soon we will have a website and people could know about us and then maybe be more successful, or less successful, I don’t know. We certainly will get some criticism, that’s for sure because people here are quick to criticize.”
Yet, as Ninos says, it’s typical for kids to just want to play soccer, all politics aside.
Once we finished the interview, the code red alert sirens went off in Jerusalem warning of incoming missiles. Ninos looks at me thoughtfully, “I haven’t heard those since 1991”.
“Should we still go to the Notre Dame Hotel to watch the Brazil/Germany game?” I question.
“Oh yes, yes it will be fine” he says.
At Notre Dame there are Muslims, Jews, and Christians sitting together watching the world cup semi-final. As we hear helicopters and fighter jets droning above, we all gather on the terrace of the Notre Dame Hotel watching the historic World Cup game. As Ninos told me before the sirens wailed,
“After all we are neighbors, like it or not, we have to be. We are destined to live together.”
1The Middle East Quartet was established in 2002 in order to mediate the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It consists of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia.