Liraz (left) and Jinan (right) get ready to play basketball

Jerusalem’s Peace Players

Bridging a divide in the Middle East through friendship and sport

When Liraz and Jinan get together, they playfully tease each other and erupt in giggles while sharing news about each other’s lives. When apart, they constantly text each other.

In short, Liraz, a 16-year-old Israeli, and Jinan, a 14-year-old Palestinian, are typical teenage girls.

Liraz (left) and Jinan (right) take a selfie together in a local park
A picture of the selfie Liraz and Jinan took together

Their friendship, however, is not so typical.

Born on opposite sides of a conflict that is one of modern history’s longest and most protracted, the pair met a year ago when they joined the same basketball team in Jerusalem.

“It’s not a normal thing that Palestinians and Israelis play basketball together—or even talk together,” Liraz says.

Liraz (left) and Jinan (right) sit together on the bleachers of a basketball court
Liraz (left) and Jinan (right) sit together on the bleachers of a basketball court
Liraz (left) and Jinan (right) prepare to play a game of basketball with other PeacePlayers members

PeacePlayers is a nonprofit organization that brings people in conflict zones together through sports, teaching them to compete together—not against each other. Now, the teen girls are building peace through the common language of basketball, a sport they both love, and serving as role models to their peers and their families.

Liraz lives in Moshav Givat-Yearim outside of Jerusalem with her parents and three older sisters. She says her family is not orthodox, but keeps some of the Jewish tradition.

“At the beginning my parents, like me, felt a little strange, and maybe even a little uncomfortable,” Liraz says. “But they met the girls. They saw how I’m making friends with them and how I’m having fun with them.”

Liraz and her family sitting around the kitchen in their home in Moshav Givat-Yearim outside of Jerusalem

Jinan lives in East Jerusalem.

She lives in Beit Safafa with her parents, three brothers and a sister.

“When I first started playing in the mixed team of both Arabs and Jews, I had some mixed feelings,” Jinan says. “I was scared but I also wanted to meet new people.”

Jinan and her siblings sitting on a couch in their home in East Jerusalem
Jinan (right) and her sister (left) playing together on the swings
Jinan and her siblings look out over Jerusalem

View of the “other side”

Before becoming involved in PeacePlayers, the girls said their views on the “other side” were influenced by what they heard on TV or the street.

“You don’t know what to believe,” Liraz says, “because you don’t really know them and this is the only thing that you see. But after being on the same team, my perspective changed.”

The girls’ parents also changed their perspectives.

Jinan’s father Hassan says he didn’t mind her going to practice in the midst of exams; he noticed it had a positive effect on her, even helping her get better grades.

Liraz’s father Yaron said that through PeacePlayers, his daughter “got to know the picture better, that there are all kinds of people, and that you don’t have to catalog them according to religion, but according to their being human.”

Jinan studies for her upcoming exams
Liraz and her family sit down together for a meal in their home
Liraz gets into position to shoot the basketball

A sisterly bond

All the girls on the team are friends, but Liraz and Jinan share a special bond.

Liraz says Jinan is like the little sister she never had.

She admires Jinan’s tenacity. “She is a fighter on the court,” Liraz says. “Though she is short, she takes lots of rebounds. She scores many points.”

Jinan gets into position to shoot the basketball
A container of basketballs that PeacePlayers uses for their practices
Members of PeacePlayers practice basketball on a local court
Jinan gets ready to shoot the basketball
A PeacePlayers basketball team practice session
A girl gets ready to catch a basketball
A PeacePlayers basketball bag
A PeacePlayers team gets ready to end practice for the day

At the end of practice, Jinan and Liraz join their teammates in putting their hands inside a circle and shouting “We are PeacePlayers” in unison. “I see my whole team as one big family,” Liraz says. Jinan agrees: “I truly feel that the people that have not experienced what I am experiencing are missing out a lot."

“At the end of the day,” Jinan says, “we’re both human, and I don’t feel like there is a difference between us. We make a perfect team.”

Liraz (left) and Jinan (right) sit together after practice
Jinan gets ready for the day
Liraz gets ready for the day

About this story

PeacePlayers International uses basketball as a tool to bridge divides, develop young leaders and change perceptions in Israel and the West Bank, as well as other regions around the world.

USAID has supported PeacePlayers International’s program to bring together Israelis and Palestinians since 2010. About 400 children and youth between the ages 6 and 24 participate in the program today.

The younger participants start with “twinning,” a program in their own community to prepare them for joining a mixed team with children of a different religion and ethnicity.

Preliminary results from a study by New York University found that participating in the organization increases the willingness and ability of Israeli and Palestinian youth to act as peacebuilders by standing up to defend members of the other group when harassed or facing aggressive actions.

PeacePlayers is one of two dozen programs that USAID supports to bring together Israelis and Palestinians to promote peace.

Photos by Bobby Neptune for USAID