In a scorching hot community gym in the northern Israeli city of Acre, groups of young Jewish and Arab boys gathered to fight as equals. Boxing, it seems, serves as an unlikely bridge to peace among adversaries.
Associated Press photographer Oded Balilty is no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in fact, his photographic legacy is intertwined in the struggle. After photographing the often violent clashes in Gaza and the West Bank for most of his life, Balilty has begun turning to stories that move beyond the violence—stories that offer glimpses of humanity, cooperation and shared experience.
Balilty’s latest series goes behind-the-scenes of last week’s National Youth Boxing Championship, supported by an organization boasting approximately 2000 active members. Although boxing isn’t a major sport in Israel, it’s favored by many of the roughly 2 million Israeli Arabs in the country, who often face discrimination and other economic hardships.
Within the framework of the sport, Jewish and Arab fighters square off, putting aside the tensions one would expect within a physically brutal sport. The young fighters, clad in helmets and gloves, view each other as equals and are not burdened by the engrained history of conflict outside the ring.
Balilty was drawn to the young age of the children. Many are between 9 and 13, ages where children remain unburdened by the conflicts of their parents. “They are only kids—all they care is to have fun with their friends everyday,” Balilty told TIME, “just like in any other place. It really gives me hope.”