The Israeli-Palestinian basketball teams that are breaking all barriers

Maayan, with the ball, plays for one of PeacePlayers International's basketball teams -- the only teams in the Israel Basketball Association youth league with Jews and Palestinians playing together. Alex Harris

JERUSALEM -- Two teenage girls practice 3-pointers and layups at the end of a team workout session. They wear bright basketball shorts and T-shirts, and their hair is tied back in long, dark ponytails. From the bleachers, their coach, Rebecca Ross, watches them chatter away, switching seamlessly between Hebrew and Arabic.

Ofir (the girls' last names are withheld for privacy reasons), 15, with lighter brown hair and a round face, is a Jewish Israeli from a leafy south-central neighborhood. Malak, 16, a player with reedy legs and quick speed, is a Muslim Palestinian from Shuafat, a village adjacent to a refugee camp on the northeast side of Jerusalem.

"This is not normal," says Ross, a Jewish Israeli-American citizen, in English, sweeping her arm in the direction of the girls. "This doesn't happen. You can't find this anywhere else in the city."

Ross, 26, is a coach for PeacePlayers International (PPI), an organization dedicated to bridging divided communities through basketball. PPI's four teams are the only in the Israel Basketball Association youth league with Jews and Palestinians playing together, and Ross coaches two of them, the U-16 and U-18 All-Stars. This approach has led to pushback from fans and referees alike. It has also led to unprecedented success. The season ended with victories for both of Ross' teams at the championship game in April, but more than a month before that, the PeacePlayers teams had already clinched those divisions for the first time in program history.

Players are drawn to the program's winning reputation, and for many the team's diversity is an unwelcome surprise at first. Pull aside one girl and ask her what she knew of the other players before their first practice, and the answers are eerily uniform.

"I thought the Jews would hurt me, or they'd grow up to hurt me," says a 16-year-old Palestinian team member who'd prefer not to have her name used.

"I had heard that all the Arabs were terrorists, and everyone wants to kill us, and I thought we were supposed to hate each other," says a 15-year-old Israeli player.

They expected that getting along would require hours of conversation. But there is nothing like the rapport of teammates, and focusing on basketball was enough. They linger after practices, text often during the week and spend weekend retreats laughing and talking into the night about music and friends and school.

"A basketball team is based on trust and friendship," says Toot, an 18-year-old Israeli who is nearly the tallest and oldest on the U-18 team.

"Basketball gives you a chance to play together and to succeed. I was surprised to see that they felt exactly like me. ... The biggest thing PeacePlayers could teach me is to see the other side." There's not just one side to every story, and not just two, Toot said. There are many. And her team is creating a new side entirely.

Every week, Jerusalem goes quiet from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Shops and public transportation shut down for the Jewish day of rest. The gymnasium where PPI plays is tucked among the hills of Hebrew University, and as of 8 p.m. Saturday, several hours after sunset, the main entrance is still closed. The sports complex is silent, save for the shouts from the lit-up gym where Ross' U-18 squad is capping off a lopsided win.

With four minutes left, Malak, who is quick in transition and quicker to cover, teams up with Netta, a tall, talented Israeli, to double team an opponent. PPI gains possession and an easy layup sends the team ahead by double digits. Ross is an exacting coach, and the team's dedication and unlikely chemistry is too much for another unmatched team. PPI wins by 19 points and shouts "We are PeacePlayers, Jerusalem!" after the final whistle.

This is a tame home crowd, but the team is accustomed to unfriendly environments. In one game, a Palestinian PPI player said "Oh, God!" in Arabic and was accused of cursing by the referee. He gave her a technical foul. Then the opposing bench jeered until the mother of an Israeli PPI player stood up and yelled: "These are all my girls. Don't shout at my girls."

During another game, an U-16 one, the crowd shouted slurs about Islam. Malak stood with Ross after the game and cried. "This is what they said to me," Malak told her. "I'm sick of it."

That moment would have seemed impossible to Ross two years ago. She was born in the U.S. and moved to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank at 8 years old. Ross has played professionally since 18, and was offered a coaching spot through her league in the summer of 2014. She was excited until she heard the team would include Arabs. In 15 years in Jerusalem, she had never spoken to a Palestinian. The sound of Arabic and the sight of a hijab unnerved her.

"From a very young age, we were taught that all Arabs are terrorists," she says. "That they lived with us, but they were dangerous."

It took her a month to give it a real chance. It helped to meet these girls through basketball, a common love that crossed no political or religious lines.

Six months in, one of her Arab players made a basket and Ross congratulated her in Arabic. Immediately, she panicked. They weren't in a liberal neighborhood. "What have I done?" she thought. But the player turned around and smiled at her, and the game went on.

"The world was still moving," Ross says. "And everything was still OK."

She began to talk about conflicts with Aysha, an Arab player-turned-coach. They were both in middle and high school -- though on separate sides of town -- during the Second Intifiada, a Palestinian uprising from September 2000 until February 2005, when Palestinian suicide bombers targeted public buses.

"'I couldn't go on buses back then either,'" Aysha told her, and Ross realized the scope of the violence. Terrorism is sometimes indiscriminate, and religion or heritage carries no protection on a crowded bus. Everyone is afraid of the same thing. And they're afraid of each other the most.

Religion is simultaneously the biggest difference and the common denominator between these players. In Jerusalem, belief is unavoidable. Five times a day, the call to prayer rings off the limestone in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian tradition runs thick alongside Islam, and sports are not always acceptable for Muslim girls.

Aysha, 21, joined PeacePlayers a decade ago, but not without resistance from her family. Like many others in Jerusalem, her daily life was directly impacted by the conflict, and those around her were skeptical of her participation.

Now she hears more criticism about her athleticism. She is expected to focus on only school and housework, she says. People in town ask why she doesn't just quit already, why she doesn't stay home.

"They tried to make me leave the sport, but they did not succeed," she says, smiling. Without PPI, she'd likely be married and pregnant soon, she says. Instead, she will be the first female in her family to attend college and plans to teach sport in schools.

Malak is the only girl of the 15 in her class who plays sports. She says her parents are supportive, but they encourage her to cover up her athletic clothes after practice so she better follows the modest dress code expected of Muslim women. She doesn't always listen.

"One of my points in playing basketball is to not try and hide it from the neighborhood," she says. "So they want to do it too. So they know that girls can play and be part of society just the same."

Ross holds a joint practice for U-16 and U-18 on Mondays. She coaches diligently, guiding players through sprints and scrimmages in husky Hebrew. It is the birthday of the Palestinian driver who takes the team to games, and practice ends early for a celebration. The scorer's table that is usually covered with cellphones and cords -- these are teen girls above all, and teen girls aren't inclined to be without charged phones -- is cleared off and stacked with snacks.

The girls stick sparklers into the frosting of a large chocolate cake with cherries and hoist it in front of the driver, a short, round man who beams as the team surrounds him.

"Do we sing in Arabic or Hebrew?" someone asks, and Ross says both. The players pull sticky kanafeh, sweet Palestinian pastries coated in syrup and stuffed with cheese, out of a cellophane tray; Ross checks the ingredients on a bag of chips to make sure they are kosher.

Ross is now taking Arabic language lessons to better communicate with her players. She goes for meals at Aysha's home, and greets her players in Arabic with ya habibiti -- hey, my darling. She knows how much she has changed since she began coaching, and she knows that to an outsider, to her family, even to herself, it seems unlikely. But every day, she sees the ripples of impact from the court.

The next Sunday, after yet another win, Ofir makes a detour on the way back and goes home with Jinaan, an Arab player from the same town as Aysha, to visit for two hours. It was the first time Ofir had visited an Arab home, she says, and it was the first time Jinaan's family hosted a Jew.

"The food is different," Ofir says. "But we have everything in common except religion."

Their neighborhoods are less than two miles apart. Without this team, they would have spent a lifetime living next to each other, but never with each other, separated by an invisible boundary established decades ago and strengthened by years of war, sanctions and distrust.

"It's basic, it's just seeing people as people," Jinaan says. "It doesn't matter who they are or where they are from. Once you get to know the person, without any borders or anything, you have no idea where it might take you."