A brave experiment in Jerusalem is bringing Jewish and Arab children together. Olivia Ward reports
In a sparsely-furnished room, children are sprawled on the floor, shoulders touching, singing about love and friendship. Next door, some well-scrubbed boys of eight and nine are bouncing a basketball, cheering each other on and collapsing with laughter as one misses a catch. The concrete hallway they pass through on their way back to class is decorated with brightly coloured murals of smiling faces and doves.
In any country of the world, Hand in Hand school would be a teacher's dream, devoid of visible violence and vicious bullying. But in Israel and the Palestinian territories today, it seems to exist in another dimension.
This is a land where Jewish settlers' children learn to shoot guns and repel attacks from Palestinians before they reach high school. And where Palestinian youngsters save up soft drink cans to rope around their waists in a chilling parody of suicide bombers.
But here in this tranquil enclave in south Jerusalem, Jewish and Arab children learn, play and experience life together. This kind of interaction is unthinkable for most of the population as the Middle East's cycle of violence spins on relentlessly and the two sides are pulled ever further apart.
The school, which opened in 1998, is a living experiment in bilingual and bicultural education. It was founded by Israelis of Arab and Jewish origin and is staffed by teachers who work in pairs, teaching sequentially in Hebrew and Arabic. It's far from the traditionally divided Israeli school system, which its critics liken to that of apartheid South Africa.
The school, situated in an Israeli-controlled area, has counterparts in the northern Galilee region and in Jaffa, part of Tel Aviv. They use education to create understanding, rather than to confirm mutual isolation. "My friend Ama and I are like cousins," says fair, blue-eyed Noa, a nine-year-old Jewish girl, tugging the hand of her shy, dark-haired Arab classmate.
She seems unaware that her simple remark is revolutionary, and even dangerous, in the world outside the school. But inside the heavy metal railings, patrolled by a guard who unlocks the gate only for those he knows by sight, children and teachers are quarantined from the ills of their poisoned societies.
Not far away, Israeli roadblocks and military patrols challenge and sometimes bar Palestinians who try to pass through to Jewish towns or settlements. While Jewish children grow up in fear of lurking gunmen and suicide bombers who inexplicably target their friends and relatives, young Palestinians learn to fear the tanks and heavy weapons that invade their villages.
The staff of Hand in Hand, who represent the most cross-cultural and liberal of both societies, do not have resources for dealing with the traumas that their five-to nine-year-old pupils face. "One of our kids tried to go through some fields to get around a checkpoint," says principal Dalia Perez-Amzalak. "He was frightened because he'd seen a soldier put a gun to his father's head."
Parents and children have to face many other potential and real traumas. A father can be called up for duty in the Israeli military and have to lay siege to a Palestinian village where his child's friends and their parents live. And there have been the inevitable deaths that the children experience at the hands of an "other side" that is at once enemy and friend.
"I feel very sad and angry sometimes," admits Sol, a seven-year-old Muslim boy who lost a brother in circumstances too painful for him to describe.
"But here I can forget."
Paul Leventhal, former associate director at the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, the founding organisation of Hand in Hand, says that, like their children, the pupils' parents have to deal with emotional confusion. He adds that those who must cross lines to get to the school show extreme dedication.
"For Arab parents, the biggest draw is the quality of our education," he says. "Arab education has been dismal, and some are willing to take risks to give their children a good start. For Jewish parents, there's an ideological motive - they want to work for equality and mutual respect."
Parents are given the chance to participate in the education programme. By using personal histories of the children's own families, Hand in Hand gets around the deep political contradictions associated with teaching about the past. All religious and political holidays are observed, and the customs and food of Arabs, Jews and Christians are celebrated, enabling the children to share each other's culture.
In spite of the prevailing external climate of intolerance, the school has a surprising amount of financial support, even from a government dominated by hardline views: it receives 75 per cent of its funding from the state.
The remainder comes from fees and donations. But, says Mr Leventhal: "We don't want any child turned away for lack of money."
The school is, admittedly, on a mission. The staff fervently hope the 124 pupils - half of them Jewish, half of them Arab - will stay to graduate at 18, and enrolment expands as one grade a year is added.
In a few years the students and parents will face their biggest challenges, as child friendships turn to more mature teenage relationships and dating.
Then they will discover whether they are voices for change, or merely voices in the wilderness.
"Whatever the political and diplomatic situation, the relationship between Israel's diverse citizenry must move beyond volatile headlines toward true coexistence and partnership," says the school's manifesto. "Education is the key."
Hand in Hand has a website at: www.handinhand12.org