Israeli, Palestinian Boys' Soccer Tournament Exposes Reality of Jerusalem Life

When all else fails, the frustrated boys are left to play table soccer at the community center.

The boys from Kafr Aqab always arrive late to Jerusalem's neighborhood soccer tournament. But it isn't their fault. Their Jerusalem neighborhood is on the other side of the separation fence, so their arrival depends on the mood of the guards at the Qalandiyah checkpoint.

Tournament director Liron Jarassi doesn't get upset. "We take their delay into account," he explained.

Boys from Kafr Aqab - Emil Salman - 23122011
Boys from Kafr Aqab playing soccer in Jerusalem this week.Emil Salman

Another problem is that these boys don't really have a field to practice on. Sometimes they train in parking lots or at building sites. Two months ago, one of the schools volunteered its field for short periods, twice a week. When all else fails, the frustrated boys are left to play table soccer at the community center.

Kafr Aqab, only two kilometers south of Ramallah, has been experiencing a building boom in recent years. Municipal inspectors never come to this area beyond the fence, but it is still within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, so the Palestinian Authority has no say, either.

The result is that everyone is building, renovating and expanding to their hearts' content - a planning nightmare and developer's dream. The residents' biggest fear is that at some point, Israel will wash its hands of Kafr Aqab and turn them from Jerusalemites, who enjoy freedom of movement, to Ramallah residents, who are locked out of Jerusalem.

I arrived in Kafr Aqab with coach Anan Elian, 32, of Beit Safafa in southern Jerusalem. To get to a 90-minute practice session, he generally waits around three hours at the checkpoints.

"Some of the kids who study in Jerusalem also get up at 5 A.M. so they can get to school by eight, and then they're tired during practice," he said.

We spoke to the boys for a bit in a small office in the community center. Goalie Ahmed Adakian, 12, was morose.

"When we come late it's very disappointing, and I feel bad," he said. "Sometimes there's also a mean policeman. Once there was a nice one, but that happens rarely."

These kids don't know much Hebrew other than "Shalom," but it's important that I tell them whether I prefer Barcelona or Real Madrid, the two soccer teams Kafr Aqab's kids are torn between.

The minibus came to take them into the city, but there was a problem: It had only 14 seats, and 19 people were supposed to go to the tournament. Five kids were told they would have to stay behind, and they looked as if they were about to cry. I felt guilty because I was taking up a place.

In the end, the driver gave in and let everyone onto the minibus. The boys, too young to have identity cards, were carrying their birth certificates in plastic sheets.

The Qalandiyah checkpoint is a heap of wagons selling date juice and vendors selling everything from pirated CDs to handkerchiefs. Since this bus was private, it wasn't certain the guards would let it pass through the public bus lane, which moves faster, but we got lucky.

In the end, our problem wasn't the army; it was some Palestinian wise guy who blocked our way with his jalopy and started to bang on the minibus' windshield with his cane. We had no clue what he wanted.

The next stop was the soldier in her bulletproof vest, who laconically reviewed the birth certificates. This time it didn't take that long - only half an hour.

"It's all a matter of luck," said Elian. "Amazingly, there were no traffic jams and no one threw rocks today."

The boys on the bus started to get excited and sing soccer songs as we made our way to the Hapoel Katamon field, where the tournament takes place. When we got there, it was hard to differentiate between Palestinian and Jewish kids; they're all cute.

The tournament's emcee stood near a menorah, yelled out "Happy..." and waited for the kids to respond "Hanukkah!" But of course, the Kafr Aqab boys didn't know Hebrew. They just wanted to play ball.