Page last updated at 01:01 GMT, Sunday, 26 April 2009 02:01 UK

Cricket breaks down Israel boundaries

Cricket For Change in the Negev
Bedoiun children from the village of Hura are trained in batting and bowling

By Tim Franks
BBC News, the Negev, Israel

"Run! Run!" shouts Danny at the dust-strewn, sun-baked children.

Moments before, the small group of boys and girls had been milling around a patch of hardened sand, on their unauthorised encampment in the southern Israeli desert, the Negev.

Now, courtesy of five Englishmen, who have just spilled out of a van, carrying plastic wickets, plastic bats and tennis balls covered in electrical tape, they have been corralled into playing an impromptu game of cricket.

Somehow, it works. The children may not realise it, but almost immediately they are experiencing the pleasure of thumping an on-drive through deep mid-wicket.

Here we have a chance with the young kids: they've not yet been brainwashed into separation, and there's no need for it. That might sound naive. But there isn't any need

Tom Rodwell
Cricket For Change

Cricket For Change was set up almost 30 years ago, in the wake of the inner-city riots in London.

The charity worked with the poor, with gangs, and with the disabled. In recent years, it has taken its "street cricket" to countries around the world.

This week marked its first attempt to bring together Arabs and Jews.

For two days, schoolchildren from the Bedouin village of Hura have been coached in bowling, batting and fielding.

Tom Rodwell, the chief executive of Cricket For Change is supervising. He says cricket lends itself to cohesion: "It's non-contact, not like football or basketball. And everyone has their moment, everyone has their turn."

This may all be happening within Israel - well way from the occupied Palestinian territories - but there is tension here also.

Earlier this month, a 16-year-old girl from Hura was shot dead by Israeli police after she fired a gun at an Israeli security base.

Snakes and lizards

On the third day of the programme, children from Hura are bussed the short distance to the town of Beersheva.

Teams comprised of Bedouin and Jewish children are quickly formed: the Snakes play the Lizards; the Camels play the Lions.

Israeli and Bedouin children hope to catch the ball as Cricket For Change comes to the Negev.

Each pitch stretches across half a concrete tennis court.

Osher and Ilana, both 11, are Jewish girls from Beersheva. They have been playing cricket for a year.

"First we played girls against boys. Then mixed teams. We play every Tuesday. Then last Sunday they told us that we'd been chosen to play against Bedouin kids," says Ilana.

"It's been a lot of fun," adds Osher.

Abdullah is also 11. For him, too, it is the first time he has played with someone from outside his community - the first time he has played with Jewish children.

But, remarkably, it is also the first time that he has travelled the few kilometres to Beersheva.

"And, you know," he says, "I felt really good, because I felt I was playing with good people."

Making a difference

All of which still leaves the question as to how much difference this sort of project makes.

Co-existence programmes tend to involve well-meaning, but self-selecting adults. The ripples rarely spread.

But Tom Rodwell says that this is different.

Cricket For Change in the Negev
For one Bedouin child it was the first time he had played with Jewish children

"It is really quite shocking from a British perspective that there are these communities here living cheek by jowl, and yet there is no contact whatsoever between them - for the historic reasons."

He gestures at the children, whooping and cheering and running.

"Here we have a chance with the young kids: they've not yet been brainwashed into separation, and there's no need for it. That might sound naive. But there isn't any need.

"And so these kids now, they're all playing happily together. And hopefully maybe they can grow up together. And then maybe some of the problems could be solved."

After the success of this week, Cricket For Change wants to return, and it has a bigger prize in mind.

Next year, it wants to bring cricket to Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem.

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