Felice Friedson, Arieh O'Sullivan
The Media Line
August 4, 2010 - 12:00am

Most people don’t believe Israeli and Palestinian high school students can get together and get along. But a summer program in Jerusalem proves they can.

For four weeks this summer, 100 Palestinian and Israeli students cross paths as they learn not only basic science and business skills, but also how to communicate with the other in a unique program aptly called MEET – Middle East Education through Technology.

“It was a great opportunity in MEET to meet Israelis and see their point of view,” said
Rawan Abu Lafi, a 16-year-old Palestinian junior from Shuafat, a neighborhood bordering Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“It was a great opportunity to meet Palestinians,” chimed in Adam Ochayon, 17, from the Israeli town of Mevaseret and a fellow participant in the program.

MEET is a private initiative set up in 2004 by Israelis and Palestinians who met as students abroad and dreamed of creating a “social start-up” that would engage youths from both sides.

“I had to fly over oceans to meet people who lived 10 minutes away from me [in Israel].
We created relationships and a feeling that changed the way I looked at the world and my ability to solve problems. It made it very clear to me that we had to create a generation for whom the reality was very different,” said Anat Binur, founder and member of the executive board, who grew up in the Israeli town of Herzliya.

Fellow board member Abeer Hazboun, a native of Bethlehem in the West Bank, said the aim was not necessarily to make the students best friends, but to teach them to work as partners.

“We wanted to create an alternative model for classical conflict resolution and try to bring students who we believe have the potential to be leaders in the future and invest in them, empower them, educate them, provide them with skills of 21st century,” Hazboun said.

Meeting at the computer labs donated by Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, 100 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors spend four weeks in intensive computer and business studies.

The first year of the three-year program focuses on computer systems, using JAVA software. The second and third year also include business development. It costs about $5,000 per student, who all receive a full scholarship.

The rigorous selection process involves testing, group dynamics and personal interviews where students must show their commitment to the three-year program. Only 44 are accepted out of 530 applicants. Including returning second and third year students, there are 100 participants. The budget is $800,000 a year provided by MIT, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Al-Quds University, various foundations and Israeli and Palestinian donors.

“It’s hard to raise funds,” Binur said. “I feel, especially over the past four years, that many people have given up or become very pessimistic and they don’t always believe that Palestinians and Israelis are actually willing to do something, to change their futures and try to make it more positive.”

Participants come from both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem and the Israeli towns of Beit Shemesh and Mevaseret. Those who live outside of Jerusalem reside in campus dormitories in rooms shared by Israelis and Palestinians.

“In the overnight it’s a great opportunity to get to know each other,” said Ochayon. “It really gets personal. You sleep in the same room. You can’t really tell the difference. It doesn’t really matter if you are Israeli or Palestinians.”

The idea is to teach conflict resolution through computer science and business. Instructors come from prestigious American technology university MIT, the primary partner of MEET.

Anna Premo, of Pittsburgh in the United States, has spent the last four weeks teaching first year students how to use JAVA, the computer programming language.

“On the first day I walked in and I couldn’t tell the difference between the Israelis and Palestinians, but I noticed there were clear-cut groups already and they seemed to be speaking either in Arabic or Hebrew and it was hard to try and figure out how to bring them together,” Premo said. “But after the first week and they knew each other better and it was easier.”

MIT graduate Ben Chun, currently a high school teacher from San Francisco, had his third year students under his spell in his class on their final projects. Sporting waist-length hair and a petite goatee, he said later that he was looking for something to do during the summer break that was more meaningful than a standard trip abroad. He compared his California students with the ones he instructed in Jerusalem.

“Some of the things are the same, teenagers are teenagers. But some of the things are very different. The level of politics and cultural conflict that they are dealing with on a daily basis, we don’t really have that kind of thing in San Francisco,” Chun said.

Second year students Palestinian Jillian Shawer and Israeli Nastia Fermenko proudly showed off their project.

“We are working on a project which is called ‘IM CHAT’, so we are going to chat with friends but our project has many special features,” Shawer said.

The MEET program doesn’t end in the summer. They continue meetings once a week in Jerusalem. After high school Israeli students are drafted into the army while their Palestinian counterparts will likely move on to college.

Some alumni like Wissam Jarjoui, a graduate from the first class in 2006, actually made it into MIT.

“MEET has helped me make that next step which is to have Israeli friends and realize this is something you can do. There isn’t anything holding you back,” Jarjoui said.

While Jarjoui was at college his fellow classmate Zohar Moyal was serving in an Israeli army combat unit. Like other alumni, they have returned this summer to volunteer and support the program. Moyal said ultimate peace was a complicated task, but dialogue helped.

“This is a long time conflict. I think that MEET is one of the solutions,” Moyal said.

For Anat Binur, the return of alumni showed the staying power of the MEET program.

“Suddenly we have all the alumni coming back and calling us, wanting to be involved and volunteer,” Binur said. “I think we have created a very unique model that can be replicated in many other places in the world.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017