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Palestinian high school students from Ramallah, Bethlehem and east Jerusalem are working on technology projects alongside their Israeli counterparts from Beit Shemesh, Mevaseret Zion and west Jerusalem in the MEET (Middle East Education through Technology) program being taught at the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus.
"I didn't realize they must serve in the army when they graduate from high school until we once spoke about it. I was shocked to hear they have to serve until the age of 21."
This sentence might not sound so surprising if it was coming from an overseas visitor. But the speaker is Anwaar, a 17-year-old Palestinian from east Jerusalem. She was talking about Amit and Nadav, fellow participants in MEET whom she has known for two years.
"I don't know yet what I'll do in the army, I just know it's something I have to do," said Nadav. Amit added, "And we're happy to do it."
Most of MEET's funding comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When Anwaar and Manal, also from east Jerusalem, get together with Amit and Nadav, who both study at Leyada high school, also located on Givat Ram, they seldom, if ever, talk politics.
During this summer's school vacation they are busy writing commercial software for GHOST (Global Hosted Operating System), a Palestinian start-up company, developing a compatible task management application that will be accessible to users from any computer.
They speak passionately about their project and how much they are getting out of the MEET program.
Asked about the gaps between their societies, they seem a bit embarrassed.
When they are asked how things would be if the program were taking place in Ramallah, Amit and Nadav said, "We really don't know."
"We would have protected you," Manal said laughing, and the others joined in.
"I think being here while not talking politics really helps you to get to know each other. This situation helps with rearranging our ideas and minds about the other side," said Anwaar. "I will still be a Palestinian when it ends, but I'll have more experience and I'll get to know the person regardless of his citizenship."
"We are not teaching them how to talk to each other, we are teaching these future leaders computing, programming and business. They have common interests, and they understand the benefits of working together," said Abeer Hazboun, 25, the Palestinian director of the project. She lives in Bethlehem.
MEET is in its fourth year; all 85 participants receive a scholarship that covers tuition, transportation, food and even the notebooks.
During the summer, those who live far from the campus or have to pass a checkpoint on their way there are being hosted for five weeks by Jerusalem's YMCA. During the school year they meet once a week to continue work on projects they started in the summer.
The project costs about $500,000 a year, which several Israeli, Palestinian, Japanese and German companies help to finance. It's mainly funded by MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology).
It's difficult to get into MEET. Thirty new students are chosen each year from about 440 applicants, after a selection process that includes a written exam, group dynamics and a personal interview.
The curriculum of Java programming, problem solving, entrepreneurship and leadership skills is taught in English by MIT students.
Wissam Jarjoui, a 17-year-old Palestinian from Beit Hanina in north Jerusalem, completed the MEET program last year. This fall, he enters MIT with a full scholarship.
While Jarjoui works on his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering or nuclear physics - he hasn't decided which - his friend Lior Kastel, 18, also a graduate of MEET, will be serving in an IDF intelligence unit.
When Kastel is asked if he thinks that Jarjoui will have a better start than he will, since he does not have to serve three years in the army, he sums up the MEET project's ideology: "By the time Wissam graduates from MIT, I'll be released from the army. With my experience and his knowledge, we'll open a company of our own," Kastel said. Jarjoui nodded in agreement.
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