After a difficult summer, during which many children in Israel and the Palestinian territories spent more time running for protection than running on a playing field, former president Shimon Peres kicked off his Twinned Peace Soccer Schools initiative on Monday on Kibbutz Dorot near the Gaza border.

More than 600 children from Israel and the Palestinian territories will take part throughout the year in the Twinned Peace Soccer Schools events, which use soccer as a tool to build friendships between Jews and Arabs. The program creates “twinned” relationships between Israeli and Palestinian cities. Sderot and the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, both down south close to the border with Gaza, are twinned with the Palestinian town of Yatta, which is located in the West Bank south of Hebron.

Peres joined 80 children from Sha’ar Hanegev, Sderot and Yatta for the first event of the school year. In the coming weeks, twinned cities from around the country will also start their programs, which run through June, with a mini-World Cup event as the climax of the year.

Former President Shimon Peres blows a whistle at the kick-off event for a Jewish-Arab coexistence soccer program in Kibbutz Dorot on Monday. (photo: COURTESY Peres Center for Peace/Efrat Saar)

Former president Shimon Peres blows a whistle at the kick-off event for a Jewish-Arab coexistence soccer program in Kibbutz Dorot on Monday. (photo: COURTESY Peres Center for Peace/Efrat Saar)

“It was really fun to play today, after two months when we were stuck inside our homes, and now we’re able to run around and let loose,” said 11-year-old Ofir Elbaz, a resident of Sderot who is starting his second year with the program.

“I have a lot of friends here, both Jews and Arabs,” he said. Elbaz added that the best part of the program was meeting new friends who also love soccer. During the summer, when he was frequently running for the bomb shelter as Sderot absorbed a barrage of rockets shot from Gaza, Elbaz said, he often thought of his soccer friends in Yatta and wondered how they were doing.

“With our Arab friends — it’s hard to communicate with them, but we talk through soccer and with our hands,” he said.

This is the twelfth year of the Twinned Soccer School Peace program. Some years, there are more than 2,000 children participating, chosen by local community organizations. Both girls and boys participate, though they play separately. The Peres Center coordinates with the Civil Administration to secure entry permits every six weeks for the Palestinian children involved in the program. The soccer program is one of the Peres Center’s longest-running flagship programs.

“Soccer is a language that everyone speaks and this is the most meaningful relationship between them,” said Yarden Leal, the director of development at the Peres Center. “Part of the educational part of the project is learning the language of the other, including language that’s connected to soccer, like ‘pass it over here,’ in both Hebrew and Arabic, so they can use it during a game,” she said.

Kibbutz Dorot is located in the Sha’ar Hanegev region on the border with Gaza. It was one of the hardest-hit areas of Israel during the 50-day Operation Protective Edge, with hundreds of rockets falling in the region. On August 22, a rocket hit Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the Sha’ar Hanegev region and killed four-year-old Daniel Tragerman.

During the war, there were many of violent protests across the West Bank, including in Hebron and the surrounding area. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli police and soldiers.

Though the 91-year-old Peres’s term ended on July 24, he continues to be active in public life through the Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace.