By Madeleine Morris
BBC World Service, Jerusalem
Tucked discreetly at the end of a car park, in between a Jewish and an Arab neighbourhood, Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school is effecting a quiet revolution in Arab-Jewish relations.
In Israel, nearly all educational institutions are segregated – Arabs in one school, Jews in another.
But at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, each group makes up exactly half of the student population.
The school has recently grown in size, and now has 460 pupils attending its largest campus in the neighbourhood of Patt in southern Jerusalem. The Jewish and Israeli Arab children study side by side in both Hebrew and Arabic.
The school’s philosophy is clearly producing a genuine affection and understanding.
“Kids need to meet the other side more,” says Jamie Bregman, a Jewish Israeli who, now aged 15 and in ninth grade, was one of the school’s original class intake.
“If you ask a kid from a regular neighbourhood “What’s an Arab?”, he’d say a worker or a suicide bomber, and that’s not right at all. They’re like us, they’re human beings. They just need to meet each other.”
The general election on Tuesday 10 February is clearly weighing on the children’s minds.
Jamie’s friend, 14-year-old Aboud Ayyad is particularly worried about what the outcome will mean for him and his Arab friends and family.
“The elections won’t do a lot for either side,” he says.
“If Tzipi [Livni] or Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu] get in, they’ll just do exactly the same and it will be bad for Arabs.”
Aboud predicts that in the next 10 to 15 years many Arabs will leave Israel and the Palestinian territories because it will become harder to move and work, especially in the West Bank and Gaza.
This is my home. I have to be here. I love this place
“They’ll just go to Canada or America and Israel will become more Jewish,” he says.
Avery Burrows, aged 12, is already fed up with politicians.
She says she doesn’t talk about politics much with her parents who immigrated to Israel from America.
But as she sits playing with the hair of her Arab friend Areen Nasheef she is adamant about the quality of the country’s politicians.
“No-one’s really good enough to run this country,” she says defiantly.
On the subject of Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, Jamie, Aboud, Avery and Areen are all agreed.
Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline policies on security and the country’s Israeli-Arab minority have grown in popularity amid a general swing to the right among an electorate strongly supportive of Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza.
The school encourages meaningful interaction between the two groups
His policies include the proposed introduction of a law demanding Israeli-Arabs pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.
“Avigdor Lieberman shouldn’t even be in this country. He’s really racist and no-one should vote for him,” says Jamie, shaking his head.
Areen is visibly upset by the subject.
“It makes me feel bad, what he says about Arabs. He says we’re not connected to Israel, and they want to take us off this land which belonged to us before. So how can they take one of the most important parts of this country and make it into only a Jewish state?”
At the age of 12, Areen is already articulating the frustrations felt by Arab-Israelis, who make up 20% of the population, but are underrepresented in all public spheres, including the Knesset, the country’s parliament.
“I don’t blame my Jewish friends for what happened in 1948, but I do feel that this was mine before,” Areen says.
“I was born here and grew up here and I am a citizen. But every time I feel like I’m enjoying the country the other side of me feels as though I shouldn’t because they took my grandparents’ land and they killed people.”
Mustafa Hssean has been in the same class as Jamie for the past nine years and the two clearly share a genuine affection and friendship.
Students are taught to value their own culture and others
But Mustafa’s views on the recent conflict in Gaza are just as clear.
“I think both sides are stupid. Every time Hamas sends rockets to Sderot the Jews hate more Arabs, and every time the Jews bomb Gaza, the Arabs hate more Jews,” he says with resignation.
His greatest fear is that in 15 years from now the state will throw him and the rest of the Arab community out of the Israel, declaring that it is not their land.
His smile belies the weight of the words coming from his 14-year-old mouth.
“This is my home. I have to be here. I love this place.”