JERUSALEM – In one of the Middle East's key flashpoints, a group of Israelis and Palestinians are putting aside their differences and teaming up on the sports field to chase a common goal.
The Judean Rebels is the first West Bank team in Israel's amateur American football league. Most of the players are Jewish Israelis, many of them West Bank settlers, but five are Palestinian.
"You put on your helmet and you cease to be a Palestinian or a settler and you're just an offensive guard, or a defensive end," said Shlomo Schachter, a 29-year-old former Oberlin College offensive lineman who sports the sidelocks and skullcap of strictly traditional Jews. Like many of the Rebels, he was raised in the United States and played football in school.
The players insist they put aside their politics the minute they put on their orange jerseys and helmets, but off-the-field realities inevitably creep in.
Musa Elayyan, a 20-year-old Palestinian hotel worker in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he often struggles to make it to practice because of delays at Israeli military checkpoints.
And although Elayyan is reluctant to talk about his political views, he said he believes in a one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians — a position that calls for combining Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single country. Israelis almost universally oppose this view since it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Schachter said he invited Elayyan and his brothers to play football last year because of their size. Elayyan played for his U.S. high school team in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"I let them know beforehand that we're Arabs," said Elayyan, who only learned Arabic after moving with his family to Jerusalem in 2007. "We didn't want to make any problems."
Schachter's answer: "That's great. Let's play football."
Despite the camaraderie, other Rebels are blunt about their icy feelings toward Palestinians, especially after a pair of recent attacks in the West Bank.
"I see Palestinians as the enemy," said 28-year-old Uria Loberbom, a bulky defensive lineman who lives in the Sde Boaz settlement. "There's a war outside. ... Here, it's just a game."
The Rebels, who joined the seven-team local league last year, play at Kraft Stadium, donated by Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots of the NFL. The artificial turf surface includes a Patriots logo at midfield. The team finished fourth in their first season after losing to the Tel Aviv Sabres in the semifinals. The new season starts in October.
In the political arena, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently in peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Much of the rift between the two sides concerns Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and that extends to the Rebels. Many of the Jewish players on the team dream of building a 5,000-seat stadium in Efrat, a West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem.
Schachter hopes it will mark the beginning of a cultural "renaissance" in the area. But for now, the stadium remains on hold because the Israeli government has placed tight restrictions on new construction in West Bank settlements.
Schachter said he hopes that Palestinians will have access to the proposed sports facility, but said only the political climate of the time will decide that. Palestinian residents of the West Bank have limited access to settlements.
Elayyan struggled to articulate what he thought of the Efrat stadium, but insisted Palestinians should also be able to access it.
"If we can create a model here on the field to get people to work together," said Elayyan, slipping on his jersey, "then we can be used as an example for outside the field, too."