JERUSALEM, Oct 22 (Reuters) When 13-year-old Tal Grad celebrates his Bar Mitzvah it'll be just like any other Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, but with one difference: his Arab friends will be there.
Grad attends Jerusalem's only bilingual Hebrew-Arab school, which has two principals -- one Jewish one Arab -- and mixed classes in a rare effort to boost understanding and dialogue between the divided communities.
''What's happening in our country is bad,'' says Mustafa Hussein, one of Grad's Arab classmates. ''I don't think this school will bring peace, but it helps us understand each other and even if we argue about politics, we stay friends.'' The Max Rayne Hand in Hand School lies between the Jewish area of Patt and the Arab neighbourhood of Beit Safafa in Jerusalem, serving pupils from both halves of a city that is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians and lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While the vast majority of Arab Israelis learn Hebrew, few Jewish Israelis study Arabic to a high level and schoolchildren from each community rarely study or socialise together.
''When I first told my friends I was going to a joint school with Jewish kids they thought it was strange, but now they are jealous,'' 13-year-old Israeli Arab Haneen Kanana said. ''Learning the language helps us understand each other.'' The school accepts the same number of Jewish and Arab children and treats everyone equally -- unusual given Israeli schools are mostly separated along linguistic lines and institutions in Arab neighbourhoods often lack the standard of facilities of their Jewish equivalents.
The school, which is funded by a combination of government money, fees and donations, says it teaches children about both cultures by combining both curriculums. It is one of only four bilingual schools in Israel and the first in Jerusalem.
''Our mission is very simple but not so easy in this place -- it's to treat people as equals and to live together,'' one of the two headteachers, Ala Khatib, told Reuters in the school's new wing, which opened yesterday, a working day in Israel.
Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are divided over whether to call themselves Arab Israelis or simply Palestinians, like those who live in the occupied West Bank or Gaza.
Yesterday, a first grade class played bilingual tag, with Jewish and Arab teachers cheering on the children by shouting Yalla yalla!, slang for ''go, go'' used by both Arabic and Hebrew speakers. Later they played bilingual hangman.
Jewish first grader Merav is too young to understand the implications of learning in both Hebrew and Arabic, but she is proud to announce that she already speaks both.
''My friends speak Arabic and also Hebrew because we learn both,'' she said with a grin. ''It's kind of nice.'' REUTERS SS AS0837