The bell clangs, the fight starts and the boxers come at each other. On one side is a 13-year-old Arab boy from northern Israel. His opponent comes from a Jewish town.
The Jewish fighter from the blue corner pushes his Arab adversary against the ropes before pummeling him with a barrage of punches.
Jews and Arabs have been fighting each other for decades, so boxing may seem like a strange way to build peace between the two – but that’s what the Israel Boxing Association aims for.
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“It’s important for me for boxing to be a bridge of meeting between young people, between Jews and Arabs in Israel,” said IBA General Director William Shihada. “The boxers know each other and train together.”
Shihada oversaw Israel’s National Youth Boxing Championship last week in three cities over four days. In the final event, nearly 50 competitors in their early teens gathered in a hot community gym in the northern Israeli coastal city of Acre to fight their last bouts of the season.
“It’s difficult because it’s the final match,” said 13-year-old Muhammad Khamisi, minutes before stepping into the ring. “But I’m ready.”
Khamisi, who has been training since age 11, comes from the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Kanna in the north. He played down the conflict between Israeli Arabs and Jews, saying, “we’re all just friends playing together.”
Outside the ring, there were many signs of friendship. Competitors chatted at ringside, bumped boxing gloves before the first round, and shook hands or patted each other on the back after a hard-fought match.
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Boxing is a minor sport in Israel. The IBA reports about 2,000 active members throughout the country. By contrast, the Israel Football Association represents some 30,000 soccer players.
“There isn’t much awareness about boxing in Israel,” said coach Ismaeel Hamad, who has trained fighters in the Arab city of Nazareth for seven years. “The poor go to boxing, while the rich go to football, basketball. Only the children of poor people box.”
The sport’s appeal to the economically disadvantaged may explain its popularity among Israeli Arabs, who routinely face discrimination in the job and housing markets and make up something of an underclass in Israel. Israeli Arabs constitute roughly one-fifth of Israel’s 8 million inhabitants but produce about 70 percent of its young boxers, according to IBA estimates.
Khamisi lost his match to 14-year-old Davidov Dolev, but the two did not show any ill will after the fight. “(Boxing’s) not violent, it’s a sport,” said Dolev, who will now represent Israel at the Youth World Boxing Championships in October. “It’s just in the ring, not outside.”
Boxing provides a unique chance for young Arab and Jewish competitors to meet in the ring as equals, equipped with helmets and gloves and playing under the same set of rules.
“It’s not important what the name of the boxer is. You can be Moshe, you can be Muhammad, you can be Dmitri,” Shihada said. “We go to Europe as one team.”