After months of building ramps and a halfpipe, the skate park finally opened in Gaza in April.
Since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have remained at a standstill. Illegal settlements are popping up throughout the West Bank and the 1.7 million living in Gaza remain under strict military blockade.
Peacebuilding and dialogue has necessarily shifted to the grassroots level, where Palestinians and Israelis are engaging in sports and cooperative projects to cope with psychological trauma in the absence of a comprehensive peace settlement.
Skate4Life, a new international outreach initiative, recently brought skateboarding to Gaza, allowing youth to learn a new activity while engaging with outsiders from the international community. Simply getting supplies into Gaza posed a major logistical challenge for the British group — first traveling to Egypt in February and then crossing into Gaza after a month’s wait imposed by Egyptian authorities.
“Skate for life is the name of the project — it will help to entertain our children and give them the chance to learn a new sport, thanks to the British team who brought with them this idea and tools to build this ramp. Skateboarding helps children get rid of psychological problems,” said Ayman Abu Leylah, a representative from Al-Amal Sports Club, in a statement to The Real News.
For the 1.7 million Palestinians living under constant military blockade, there are few outlets for youth recreation. Since 2006, the Israeli government has maintained a strict control on land and maritime borders, making building materials, fuel and food scarce commodities. Until now, developing art and sporting activities for the 800,000 Gazans under the age of 16 has been largely neglected due to the difficulty in meeting basic living needs.
Gaza is still recovering from Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli bombing campaign in 2008-2009 aimed at routing Hamas. Using Israel Defense Forces (IDF) data, Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, recorded 773 civilian deaths in Gaza during this period. Of this number, at least 320 were children under the age of 18. Hundreds of schools and public buildings were leveled during the bombings as well.
For Gazans, it’s a desperately needed project after years of war and occupation. According to a 2010 study by NGO Ard al-Insan in Gaza, 73 percent of Gaza children are still suffering from psychological and behavioural disorders, including psychological trauma, nightmares, involuntary urination, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Opening channels for dialogue
In dealing with the trauma of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, small numbers of Jews and Palestinians continue to promote outreach and dialogue when negotiations appear hopeless and violence continues to plague the region.
Since 1949, Givat Haviva, an educational institution in Israel, has run programs bringing together Palestinians and Jews in activities that encourage dialogue, cultural exchange and peacebuilding.
The program launched the Community Youth Theatre Project in 2010, bringing together 235 Arab and Jewish youth to work joint theater projects.
“Givat Haviva has worked in the field of Jewish-Arab relations for over 60 years based on the understanding that life in Israel must be grounded in democracy, civil equality and full rights for all members of society,” said Haggai Halevi, former director of the center.
Despite having an Arab population of 1.6 million, Israel remains a divided country where the majority of schools are segregated and Jewish residents seldom interact with their Arab neighbors.
“During my term as mayor of a regional council from 2005-2009, I felt that there was a working relationship between the leaders of the municipalities in the region but there was no connection between neighboring Jewish and Arab communities at the grassroots level,” said Riad Kabha, director of Givat Haviva’s Jewish-Arab Center for Peace.
He added, “The vision of Givat Haviva together with the two communities in the framework of the Shared Communities Program is the creation of a new climate for cooperation at all layers of society.”
This climate of cooperation includes the Theater Program bringing together Arab and Jewish youth from neighboring villages in northern Israel to work cooperatively in the arts. It may not be the panacea to decades of conflict, but it certainly is a start.