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Hoop dreams bring young Israelis, Palestinians together

Paul Goldman / NBC News

Children shoot hoops in Jerusalem as part of the PeacePlayers International program.

By Paul Goldman, NBC News

JERUSALEM -- "Shlomi, throw me the ball."

"Assi, it's your turn, pass and dribble."

"Mahmud, great pass. What a basket."

This might sound like a normal basketball game but it's not. The unique endeavor can be best described as an "oasis of coexistence" in Israel where Jews, Muslims and Christians play not only on the same court but in mixed teams.

In 2001, American brothers Sean and Brendan Tuohey founded PeacePlayers International with the premise that children who play together can learn to live together.

It seemed quite obvious during my visit to practice that the Tuohey brothers were succeeding. Here on the court at the "Hand in Hand" bilingual school in Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians were laughing together, hugging each other and, most importantly, shooting the ball together.

"At first the kids and their parents were hesitant with some kids even crying," says Karen Doubilet, who is the PeacePlayers International's Middle East managing director. "But the transition is very fast, now they jump in joy and hug each other when they meet on and off the court."

'They are like me'
After experiencing so much hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, it was refreshing and exciting to see how naturally these kids reacted and played with each other.

Malak Ayub, 12, is a Muslim girl from the East Jerusalem village of Shoafat.

"Before I came to this program I thought Israelis only wanted to do bad things to us but now I see that they are like me, they want to play together," she said.

One of Malak's best friends is Hadas Prawer, a 14-year-old Israeli from the neighborhood of Mevaseret, which is located west of Jerusalem. I asked Hadas what she tells her friends when they hear she plays with Palestinians.

"I don't care what people think or say, I'm having fun and that's it," she said, before turning around and giving Malak a huge hug.

The traditional Hanukkah 'Sufganiyot' -- the Jewish ball-shaped doughnuts -- were waiting on the sidelines as a reward for the kids' hard work. All the children were wearing T-shirts with the US AID logo on the back, indicating the backing by the US.

"Basketball is huge, especially with the girls," Doubilet added. "Most of these kids don’t have a constructive framework and we give them this activity almost for free. The relationships here will no doubt shape the way Israelis and Palestinians think of each other in the future".

About 550 young people aged from six to 18 enrolled in this program in the past year, bridging communities in Israel like Jaffa, Tamra and Jerusalem where Jews and Muslims live next to each other. 

Haled Sabah is a 20-year-old Palestinian from Shoafat. He joined the program seven years ago and is now one of its coaches.

"I see some racism on both sides but when kids play on the same team they just see each other simply as people," he said.