US gives large grant to Jerusalem soccer program for Israeli, Palestinian kids

After cutting funds for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence projects, embassy hands $200,000 to neighborhood league bringing together Jewish and Arab children in the city

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Participants of Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem’s Neighborhood League  (courtesy Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem)
Participants of Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem’s Neighborhood League (courtesy Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem)

More than a year after the US administration announced drastic funding cuts to programs benefiting Palestinians, the US Embassy in Jerusalem gave a handsome grant for a project bringing Jewish and Arab children living in the capital together to play soccer.

The Hapoel Katamon Neighborhood League, in which kids from both the western and eastern part of the city participate, is “in harmony” with Washington’s vision for peace, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told The Times of Israel.

It will receive a one-time payment of $200,000, according to embassy officials.

“This year, 51 teams from 25 different schools will take part in the project, involving more than 750 boys and girls and 26 coaches from all sectors of society — religious and secular Jews, Muslims and Christians, representing the diversity of Jerusalem,” the US embassy said in a statement.

“The US Embassy views sports and educational activities as vital tools for building bridges between different communities and promoting a just, equal and shared society.”

Participants of Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem’s Neighborhood League (courtesy Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem)

In September 2018, US President Donald Trump’s administration cut all funding for Palestinians, including security assistance and many coexistence projects that benefited both Israelis and Palestinians. The move was largely seen as a punishment for the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to engage with the White House and outright rejection of its forthcoming peace plan after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy to the city.

“I continue to believe in the importance of building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly kids. But both Palestinian and Israeli kids will lose, and these programs will be meaningless, if the PA continues to condemn a plan they haven’t seen & refuses to engage on it,” Jason Greenblatt, then the White House peace envoy, tweeted at the time.

But speaking to The Times of Israel this week, US officials said the programs that were cut in 2018 were funded by USAID, America’s international development agency, and served both Israelis and Palestinians. Projects that brought together Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, continued to receive funding.

Participants of Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem’s Neighborhood League (courtesy Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem)

Participants of the Hapoel Katamon Neighborhood League include hundreds of children living in East Jerusalem who are not citizens of the State of Israel.

The $200,000 grant was requested by the Jerusalem Embassy; the money comes from the budget for public diplomacy projects at the State Department’s Middle East bureau.

“Our Embassy’s Public Diplomacy Section supports a wide range of projects across all sectors,” Friedman told The Times of Israel in an email.

“As part of our ongoing work to build bridges between people of different religions and different ethnic backgrounds, we have established a people-to-people (P2P) program in Jerusalem that is in harmony with the Administration’s vision for peace,” he wrote.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US embassy in Jerusalem, May 30, 2018 (Matty Stern, US Embassy Jerusalem)

“The efforts to seek peace do not exist in a vacuum; all parts of the population have a role to play in peace-building — sometimes that means one neighborhood, one dialogue, or one soccer game at a time. Jerusalemites from all sectors want to live in peace and dignity. Our Public Diplomacy programs help lay the groundwork for advancing that goal.”

The Neighborhood League merited an unusually large grant because it “fits with our priorities,” said Jon Berger, the Jerusalem embassy’s cultural attache.

“We told them (the State Department) that this kind of program really accomplishes the kinds of goals that we have in Israel, which means bringing different parts of society together, and also empowering young people and giving them confidence to be a real part, a real contribution to society.”

Over the last two years, the US supported 18 so-called “people to people” projects that seek to foster better relations between Israelis and Palestinians, according to the embassy.

“Many of them are small and neighborhood-based, but they’re having an impact,” an embassy official said. “For example, we gave $25,000 to Good Neighbors Abu Tor, an Israeli-Palestinian organization that’s doing great work beautifying the neighborhood, and also getting kids to play soccer together.”

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