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Peacebuilding through sports in Israel/Palestine
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Professor Michael J. Leitner shares his research and insight on the effectiveness of using sport for peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014 has been devastating so far. So, how can we talk of peacebuilding through sports at a time like this? Truthfully, these efforts are more important than ever and are the key to improving the situation, as indicated by research findings and also by reflecting upon global historical precedents.

Programmes like Mifalot’s which have been shown to reduce hate among Jewish and Arab children toward each other are vital to peacebuilding efforts. Was World War Two any less brutal than this current war between Israel and Hamas? Look at the close friendship between the U.S. and Japan today, less than 70 years after the vicious fighting between the two countries which also included the use of nuclear weapons against Japanese civilian populations. Sport connections between the two countries were a valuable tool in improving relations. The U.S.-Japan relationship is but one example of how sport can assist post-conflict peacebuilding efforts.

In the case of the Israeli-Arab conflict, many concessions will need to be made on both sides in order to reach a peace agreement. In order to make these concessions there will need to be some trust and an atmosphere more conducive to making peace. Having friends from “the other side” and not hating one another or thinking that the other hates you are all important factors in attempting to foster peaceful relations.

The Mifalot programmes bring about positive changes in these areas. In a study (Galily, Leitner, and Shimon, 2013) conducted on the “Meet Your Neighbor” program in 2011-2012 there were numerous positive pre-test to post-test attitude changes, including:

Among the Palestinian children, a 35% increase in trusting all or most Jewish Israelis, a 23% increase in hating none or almost no Jewish Israelis, and a 22% increase in thinking that none or almost no Jewish Israelis hate Palestinians.

Among the Jewish children, there was a 20.5% increase in those who trust all or most Palestinians, a 16.5% increase in those hating none or almost no Palestinians, and a 17% increase in thinking that none or almost no Palestinians hate Jewish Israelis.

Similarly, research by Litvah-Hirsch and Leitner (2014) found that participation in the Mifalot “United Soccer for Peace” programme led to positive attitude changes. The “Meet Your Neighbor” programme brought together hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian children aged 8-15 for monthly soccer activities. The “United Soccer for Peace” programme is a three year project with the ultimate goal of reaching 40,000 people. The programme trains 50 Jewish and Arab Israeli coaches in peace education annually and also funds activities led by the coaches which bring together Jewish and Arab youth. Imagine the impact that the Mifalot programmes could have if funding for them was increased and their programmes could reach hundreds of thousands of people!

Improved relations between Arabs and Jews have been fostered through the Mifalot programmes. Surely, these relations have been harmed by the current war but a key to repairing these relations is bringing Arabs and Jews together through sports programmes such as those provided by Mifalot. It is our best hope for peace in the Middle East in the future.

[This article has been edited by the Operating Team]

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